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(Santiago) — The Chilean Supreme Court’s decision to confirm the indictment of former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet for human rights crimes brings Chile a step closer to justice, Human Rights Watch said today. The justices of the nation’s highest court voted 3-2 to reject the argument of Pinochet’s lawyers that the former dictator’s ill health invalidated the indictment.

“Another hurdle has been crossed in the path to justice,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch. “So far the courts have been scrupulously fair, and the route to Pinochet’s trial remains open.”

The appeal rejected today, which was similar to a habeas corpus appeal against an illegal arrest, was based on the argument that Pinochet’s mental impairment made his indictment, and therefore likely arrest, illegal. The court ruled that the indictment met all formal legal requirements.

Pinochet’s lawyers are now expected to pursue another appeal calling for the trial to be suspended on health grounds. Such an appeal would be heard by an appellate court, and then again by the Supreme Court.

Today’s decision confirms Pinochet’s indictment under kidnapping and homicide charges in connection with Operation Condor, a joint plan launched in the 1970s by the military governments of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia and Paraguay. The operation entailed "disappearing" dissidents, as well as abducting and smuggling them to their home countries for torture, interrogation and imprisonment. The Chilean investigating judge, Juan Guzmán, is now expected to order that Pinochet be held under house arrest.

Pinochet now faces trial for the second time for human rights abuses. His first trial, for murders and disappearances committed in the wake of the 1973 military coup (the “Caravan of Death” case), was terminated by the Supreme Court in 2002. The court decided that the former dictator’s mental condition impeded a fair trial.

Under the Chilean justice system, legal precedent is not binding. Courts decide each case on its own merits. Thus a future court decision on whether Pinochet’s mental impairment is serious enough to invalidate a trial will not necessarily be the same as the 2002 decision.

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