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Chilean court rules Pinochet unfit for trial

SANTIAGO, Chile (CNN) -- An appeals court in Chile declared former dictator Augusto Pinochet mentally unfit to stand trial Monday on charges linked to the killings of dissidents under his rule.

Pinochet, 85, seized power in Chile in 1973 and ruled until 1990. He was accused of planning the disappearances and killings of dozens of opponents in the weeks after the coup that put him in office.

Pinochet has been under house arrest since December. The appeals court was given a medical report that said Pinochet is suffering from diabetes, the effects of three minor strokes and "mild senile dementia."

"Sen. Pinochet will stop being harassed by people who act out of revenge and hatred against him," his lawyer Gustavo Collao said Monday.

If Pinochet's condition improves, he could again be subject to trial, the court said. The decision can be appealed, but prosecutors expressed doubt that the case would proceed.

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"I think, unfortunately, that this is as far as the Pinochet case goes," prosecution lawyer Juan Bustos told Reuters. Bustos said Chile had failed to live up to promises made abroad to put Pinochet on trial for human rights violations that took place under his government.

"This obviously leaves Chile on an extremely fragile footing with the international community as far as human rights in this country are concerned," he said.

According to government documents, more than 3,000 suspected leftists were killed or reported missing during Pinochet's authoritarian rule. Pinochet was accused in 75 cases linked to the "Caravan of Death" -- a military squad that emerged shortly after Pinochet seized power from democratically elected Salvador Allende in September 1973.

Human rights activists, who pressured Chilean authorities to put Pinochet on trial, expressed dismay over Monday's ruling.

Amnesty International spokeswoman Virginia Shoppee said the ruling makes it less likely that Pinochet will be called to account for the killings of dissidents under his rule. That bucks a trend toward holding heads of state responsible for human rights violations, she said.

"Although it's suspended temporarily, it's quite unlikely that he's ever going to answer, and no answers are going to be given," Shoppee said.

Pinochet's supporters were subdued Monday.

"This is not time for celebrations. We have to take seriously my general's health problems," retired Gen. Luis Cortes, a close Pinochet associate, told The Associated Press.

Pinochet's older son, also named Augusto, said the family reacted "with calm and satisfaction," the AP reported.

Pinochet turned Chile over to an elected civilian government in 1990 but remained as commander-in-chief of the armed forces until 1997. When he retired from the army, he became a senator-for-life.

He has faced prosecution since 1998, when a Spanish judge sought his extradition on torture charges. British authorities kept him under house arrest for 16 months before finding him mentally unfit for trial.

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