Chile's Augusto Pinochet — the archetypal Cold War military dictator — was declared mentally unfit today to stand trial for death squad killings shortly after his 1973 coup, likely ending efforts to prosecute him.
The Appeals Court ruled that Pinochet, 85, suffers from such severe dementia that he cannot be prosecuted on charges of covering up 75 murders by the "Caravan of Death," an army unit that toured northern Chile by helicopter, eliminating suspected leftists.
The decision can be appealed but few in Chile now believe Pinochet will ever appear in court because of the time-consuming appeals process, the ex-general's age and the bitterness of his 1973-1990 rule in Chile.
"I think, unfortunately, that this is as far as the Pinochet case goes," prosecution lawyer Juan Bustos told reporters.
Other Cases Expected to Crumble
Legal experts say some 250 other human rights cases against Pinochet are now likely to crumble.
One of the former dictator's sons expressed relief after the decision was announced. Pinochet is believed to have diabetes and aides say he has suffered at least two strokes in recent years.
"I hope with this ruling that our father can have a little more peace during what is left of his life," Marco Antonio Pinochet told Chilean radio.
Overall, interest in trying Pinochet has dwindled in Chile as the legal wrangles have drawn out.
There was little sign of protest on the streets of Santiago today, in contrast to angry demonstrations for and against Pinochet during his detention in London.
Still, human rights campaigners said Chile had failed to live up to promises made abroad to try Pinochet for the killings or "disappearances" of more than 3,000 people. Another 30,000 were tortured.
Just a Strategy to Avoid Prosecution?
Joan Garces, a Spanish lawyer who represented families of victims of Chile's dictatorship, said a medical report showing Pinochet suffered from dementia seemed to be part of the same tactic used by his defense team after his 1998 arrest in London.
"It looks like a strategy to avoid the case continuing against this person," said Garces.
Pinochet was arrested in 1998 in London but freed 16 months later when the British government ruled he was too ill to be extradited to Spain on torture charges.
Under Chilean law, defendants may be exempted from trial if they are "insane" or "demented" but the concept is based on a penal code written in the 19th century, when mental illness was little understood.
Pinochet's lawyers had argued that the law should be interpreted to include other forms of mental illness.
Despite the protests over the decision, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique called for the court decision to be respected. "What we've got to do now is respect these courts' decisions, obey their verdicts and … not make any more comments," he told reporters.
Amnesty International expressed "frustration."
Divided Over Pinochet
Despite the failure to put Pinochet in the dock, his arrest was seen as a turning point in attempts to prosecute authoritarian rulers abroad for human rights crimes.
Those efforts bore fruit earlier this month when Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic was brought to The Hague for trial.
Chileans are still divided over whether Pinochet, who took power in a 1973 coup and ruled for 17 years, should be praised for saving the nation from communism or condemned for ruling with an iron fist.
Supporters point to free market reforms carried out by U.S.-trained economists hired by Pinochet. The economic restructuring initially caused a recession but eventually made the Andean country an economic model for Latin America.
This meant that Chile avoided the worst of the hyperinflation and debt crises that hit the region during the 1980s.
Still, memories of murder and torture have not faded.
"We hope Pinochet lives for many long years so we can not stop reproaching him and telling the world what he did," said Viviana Diaz, head of a group of relatives of people who disappeared during his rule.