(Washington D.C.) — The Chilean Supreme Court's decision to deny Augusto Pinochet immunity from prosecution for past human rights violations is an important victory for accountability, Human Rights Watch said today. The court decided by a narrow 9-8 vote to uphold a lower court's ruling that the former dictator could be prosecuted for abuses committed in the 1970s.

"Today's ruling is an important step toward holding Pinochet accountable for the abuses his regime committed," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "He can no longer use his status as a former head of state to shield himself from justice."

On May 28 the Santiago Appeals Court ruled that Pinochet be stripped of his immunity to face trial for kidnapping, illegal association and torture. The case was brought by relatives of 20 victims of "Operation Condor," a joint operation of the military regimes of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay in the 1970s that entailed collaborating to "disappear" dissidents, as well as to kidnap and smuggle them to their home countries for torture, interrogation and imprisonment.

Pinochet had already been stripped of his immunity in 2000 to face trial for the murder of 57 political prisoners and the "disappearance" of 18 others after the 1973 military coup (the "Caravan of Death" case). However, that decision applied to that particular case, and in July 2002 the Supreme Court halted the trial, claiming that medical tests showed that Pinochet, now 88, was suffering from irreversible and progressive mental deterioration.

The Supreme Court cited this verdict when it twice overruled attempts by lawyers acting for Pinochet's victims to have his immunity removed to face trial in other cases. The first occasion, in December 2002, involved the murder of General Carlos Prats. The second, in October 2003, involved kidnapping and "disappearances" in the "Conference Street" case.

However, in a surprise decision in May the Santiago Appeals Court ruled that it was premature to rule on Pinochet's mental condition before his prosecution for the Operation Condor case had even begun. It accepted an argument of the relative's lawyers that assessment of his fitness to stand trial was properly a matter for the trial judge, whereas the immunity issue must be settled solely on the question of whether the accusation was credible and well-founded. This is now the position of the Supreme Court.

Relatives' hopes had been raised when it became known that judge Sergio Muñoz, who is investigating the origin of riches that Pinochet held in secret bank accounts in the United States, had questioned the former dictator in his home, as well as members of his family. Moreover, another judge, Juan Carlos Urrutia, has ordered that Pinochet be called to testify about the death of Chilean folksinger Víctor Jara, who was murdered by soldiers in Santiago a few days after the military coup.