(Washington, DC) – The arrest of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, who for the first time faces prosecution for torture, is a milestone in the struggle for justice in Chile, Human Rights Watch said today.

Pinochet is charged with the torture of 23 people, as well as the kidnapping of 34 and one homicide, which were carried out at a secret government detention center after he came to power in the 1973 military coup. The former dictator, who was placed under house arrest yesterday, is already being prosecuted on kidnapping charges in connection with the “disappearance” of 119 people in 1975. Until yesterday, Pinochet had never been charged with torture, which was a systematic practice throughout his rule.

The government-appointed National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture reported in 2004 that more than 18,000 people were tortured during the four months after the September 1973 coup, and another 5,266 people from January 1974 until August 1977.

“This is an important moment for the thousands of victims of torture in Chile,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The man who ran the regime that brutalized them is finally being made to answer for these crimes.”

Chilean courts have already convicted 109 military and police officials for crimes including “disappearances,” extrajudicial executions and torture committed during the military government. Thirty-five former generals of the army, police and air force have been sentenced or are facing trial for human rights abuses.

The Chilean Supreme Court ordered that previous charges against Pinochet, who turns 91 next month, be dropped on the grounds that he was mentally unfit to stand trial. However, in October 2005, a court-appointed panel of psychiatrists found that Pinochet was lucid and able to understand and answer questions.

The new charges against Pinochet involved abuses that occurred at the Villa Grimaldi, a secret detention center run by the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), where victims were held following the 1973 coup. The evidence against the former dictator includes the testimony of Ricardo Lawrence, a former DINA agent who said that he escorted Pinochet to interrogate Víctor Díaz, a former top official of the Chilean Communist Party who was held in 1976 at Villa Grimaldi. Lawrence said he overheard the interview, which took place in a military base in Santiago. Díaz subsequently “disappeared.”

The investigating judge, Alejandro Solis, also cited the testimony of the DINA’s director, Manuel Contreras, now serving a prison sentence for kidnapping, in which he said that he had reported to Pinochet on a daily basis.