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Chile's top court withholds ruling on Pinochet appeal

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SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) -- Chile's Supreme Court on Tuesday finished hearing an appeal to overturn an order that blocked the arrest of Augusto Pinochet on charges of kidnap and murder allegedly committed during the former strongman's 1973-1990 dictatorship, but did not reveal its verdict.

The five judges of the South American nation's highest tribunal voted on the appeal but chose not to disclose their decision until the full verdict was transcribed, a senior court official told Reuters.

It is likely that a formal ruling on the appeal, after two full-day sessions of closed-door legal arguments, will be released on Wednesday. But the result could be leaked earlier, which has happened in other court rulings involving Pinochet.

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Human rights lawyers were bidding to quash a lower court's December 11 ruling that a house arrest warrant filed against the retired general was invalid because he was not questioned prior to the order.

"Strictly applying the law, there is no doubt that this appeal will collapse because it would be absurd that a person can be charged and taken to jail without ever being heard," Pablo Rodriguez, the attorney heading Pinochet's team, told reporters.

"Attorney Rodriguez has come up with nothing new in this appeal, his arguments are based on the right to be heard. So why doesn't Gen. Pinochet come to court to be heard? Why does he continue to hide?" asked human rights lawyer Eduardo Contreras.

If the decision went against the human rights lawyers it will not spell the end of their bid to try Pinochet, 85, who many people believe to be "untouchable" and who is still the father-figure of the powerful military.

But it could mean a more long-winded legal battle, with Pinochet first having to undergo psychological examinations and interrogation by the crusading judge trying to bring charges against him.

Pinochet, who ran Chile with an iron fist after ousting socialist president Salvador Allende in a bloody 1973 coup, remained in seclusion on Tuesday at a rural residence outside the capital Santiago.

On December 1, Judge Juan Guzman, the judge probing 190 lawsuits filed against Pinochet, ordered the former commander-in-chief of the army placed under house arrest for allegedly planning and organizing the deaths and disappearances of 77 leftists.

They were victims of the "Death Caravan," a military squad that flew around Chile in a helicopter in the weeks after Pinochet's coup -- when there were widespread witch hunts of leftists and Allende's revolutionary sympathizers.

More than 3,000 people died or disappeared in Pinochet's regime, which many of his supporters believed necessary to stop the country sliding toward Marxism under Allende.

Pinochet's lawyers say Guzman should have questioned the general in person before he ordered his arrest and trial. They also believe he should have waited for the results of still-pending psychological tests on Pinochet. He cannot be tried in Chile if he is declared mentally ill.

A Santiago appeals court agreed on December 11 with Pinochet's lawyers and deemed that Guzman was wrong to issue the order for Pinochet's arrest before he directly interrogated him.

Guzman claims he did quiz Pinochet, although not in person. The judge sent him a questionnaire while Pinochet was in Britain in which he asked him about his alleged involvement in human rights abuses. Pinochet did not answer the questions, but he did respond that he was innocent.

Pinochet returned to Chile from Britain in March after spending 503 days under house arrest near London. He was detained in Britain in October 1998 at the request of a Spanish judge who wanted to try him on charges of torture. But Britain ruled he was too old and sick to stand trial.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



RELATED STORIES:
Chilean Supreme Court could rule on Pinochet case this week
December 18, 2000
Pinochet's legal fate in the hands of Chile's Supreme Court
December 11, 2000
Chilean court suspends Pinochet house-arrest order
December 5, 2000
Human rights groups hail Pinochet arrest
December 2, 2000
Pinochet to stand trial in Chile
December 1, 2000

RELATED SITES:
Amnesty International
Pinochet Foundation (in Spanish)
Chile President (in Spanish)
Human Rights Watch
UK Home Office

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