Judge to Question Pinochet

SANTIAGO – Just a few days before the 31st anniversary of Chile’s Sept. 11, 1973 coup d’etat led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator will be questioned by a judge in connection with the forced disappearance of opponents during his 1973-1990 regime.

Pinochet will appear Thursday before Judge Juan Guzmán in a case in which the magistrate is investigating Operation Condor – a strategy by which dictatorships in South America coordinated the elimination of leftists and other dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s.

On Tuesday, Guzmán set the date for Pinochet, 88, to testify.

The retired army chief is also the focus of another investigation, by Judge Sergio Muñoz, aimed at verifying the origin of between four and eight million dollars discovered in secret accounts in the Washington-based Riggs Bank.

Late last month, a Supreme Court decision stripped the former dictator of the immunity from prosecution that protected him from legal action for years.

The judge originally planned to question Pinochet on Monday, but the retired general’s lawyer succeeded in getting the interrogation postponed by filing a legal motion requesting that Guzmán be taken off the case, arguing that he was prejudiced against Pinochet.

However, the Supreme Court rejected the motion the same day it was filed.

The date set for the questioning "puts an end to several days of uncertainty, in which the delaying tactic that Pinochet’s defense attorneys attempted to use has utterly failed," said Eduardo Contreras, one of the attorneys representing the families of the dictatorship’s victims.

Guzmán is to question Pinochet in military installations designated by the army or in the former dictator’s own home – a mansion in La Dehesa, an upscale district on the east side of Santiago.

The judge dismissed a request by Pinochet’s lawyers to have him undergo prior medical exams to determine whether he is mentally fit to be interrogated.

Instead, Guzmán said he would order the exams afterwards, to be carried out by university experts rather than the doctors at the state Legal Medical Service.

A controversial diagnosis of mild to moderate senile dementia led Chile’s Supreme Court to terminate the prosecution of Pinochet on July 1, 2002.

At the time, the elderly former dictator was being investigated by Guzmán in a case involving 57 murders and 18 kidnappings (forced disappearances) of opponents, committed in October 1973 by a special helicopter-borne army mission dubbed the "caravan of death."

Hugo Gutiérrez, another attorney representing the families of victims, said Guzmán is proceeding in an "adequate and correct" manner, and added that there is "justified mistrust" in the competence of the doctors at the Legal Medical Service to act appropriately in this case.

Under Operation Condor, the de facto military regimes of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay coordinated efforts to persecute, kidnap, kill and "disappear" opponents.

According to documents from that era, Operation Condor first emerged in 1975 in a meeting in Santiago of secret police chiefs from the region, called by then-colonel Manuel Contreras, director of Chile’s Dirección de Investigaciones Nacional (DINA).

The head of DINA, the dictatorship’s secret police, answered directly to Pinochet.

The first legal action against Pinochet for his alleged responsibility for Operation Condor was filed in the early 1990s in Spain.

Based on those lawsuits, Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón issued an arrest warrant for the former Chilean dictator, who was arrested in October 1998 in London after undergoing back surgery.

He remained under house arrest in Britain until Garzón’s extradition request was rejected by the British government on humanitarian grounds, and Pinochet was released and returned to Chile in March 2000.

On Monday, lawyers representing another group of victims of the Chilean dictatorship filed charges in Garzón’s courtroom in Spain against Chilean lawyer Oscar Aitken, Pinochet’s executor, on charges of money laundering.

In an interview published last Sunday by the Santiago newspaper El Mercurio, Aitken admitted that he had created an offshore shell corporation in 1999 in the British Virgin Islands to evade the freeze on Pinochet’s assets ordered by Judge Garzón in October 1998.

Aitken, who Pinochet named the executor of his will in 2002, said in the interview that the ex-dictator’s fortune was due to savvy stock market investments that the Riggs Bank made in his name since 1990.

On Sept. 21, 1973, 10 days after violently overthrowing the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende, who reportedly committed suicide during the coup, Pinochet stated in a sworn financial disclosure statement that his net worth amounted to just under $118,000.

On Oct. 17, 1989, in another financial disclosure report, he swore that his assets were worth $450,000.

According to Aitken, the financial operations carried out in Pinochet’s name by Joseph Albritton, the former chairman and chief executive of Riggs Bank, led to the expansion of those assets to between four and eight million dollars in 10 years.

But Aitken went even further. He argued that "without meriting any reproach," Pinochet could have kept for himself one percent of the personal expense accounts available to him in his 17 years in office, which totaled an estimated $500 million.

Aitken’s statement caused indignation and drew a volley of sarcastic comments. The right-wing daily La Segunda wrote in an editorial that the reference to the personal expense accounts was "the worst excuse."

Lawmaker Camilo Escalona of the co-governing Socialist Party joked that Pinochet should be awarded the Nobel Economy Prize for his ability to make his investments grow.

Finance Minister Nicolás Eyzaguirre said average annual returns of 30 percent, which Pinochet would have needed to make his fortune grow from $500,000 to $8 million in 10 years, simply "do not exist."

"If someone offers you returns like that, report him, because he’s a swindler," he said.

The newspaper La Tercera revealed Tuesday that several weeks ago, the former dictator opened an account in the Banco de Chile, one of this country’s leading banks, to transfer deposits of around six million dollars from the United States.

According to the paper, Judge Muñoz has taken control of that account at the request of the former dictator’s defense counsel, who also provided the magistrate with a report explaining the origins of the money, which allegedly came from investments and from donations from Pinochet’s followers while he was under house arrest in London.

Aitken had publicly stated that Pinochet dictated his own will in 2002, thus giving the former dictator’s accusers new arguments against the claim that he is senile.

Pinochet’s attorneys continue to argue that he is mentally unfit to stand trial, in their attempt to keep him out of the hands of the courts.

But lawyer Contreras pointed out that under Chilean law, a person must be in possession of their full mental faculties to dictate their last will and testament.

He asked Guzmán to interrogate the notary public who notarized the will and the document in which Pinochet named Aitken his executor.