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Judge Strips Pinochet Of Immunity

A court opened the way for former dictator Augusto Pinochet to be prosecuted in 59 cases of torture and kidnapping that took place at one of his regime's secret prisons, one that once held President-elect Michelle Bachelet and her mother.

The president of the Santiago Court of Appeals, Juan Escobar, said on Friday the justices voted 13-5 to lift Pinochet's immunity, but the ruling that must be upheld by the Supreme Court before the 90-year-old former strongman can be tried. Pinochet's defense said an appeal will be filed.

Bachelet and her mother, Angela Jeria, were arrested 15 months after the 1973 coup led by Gen. Pinochet and were taken to Villa Grimaldi, where both were tortured. Their cases, however, are not among the 36 kidnappings and 23 cases of torture that led to the removal of the legal immunity Pinochet enjoys as former president.

Judge Alejandro Solis, who asked the court to remove immunity, described the Villa Grimaldi as "one of the worst houses of torture in Santiago," echoing a description used by Bachelet's mother.

Pinochet has been stripped of immunity and may face trial in three other cases, two on human rights charges, one for tax evasion and corruption, and is currently free on bail. The rights charges in previous cases included killing and kidnapping, but this was the first time torture was mentioned.

Last September, the Supreme Court stripped Pinochet of immunity from prosecution, allowing a trial in the case known as "Operation Colombo."

The cases involved the killing of 119 dissidents, but Pinochet's case would be limited to the 15 victims whose relatives filed a criminal suit against him.

But, previous attempts to bring him to trial have been blocked by the Supreme Court for health reasons. He has been diagnosed with mild dementia, suffers from diabetes and arthritis and has a pacemaker. But court-appointed doctors who examined him three months ago determined that he was nevertheless fit to stand trial.

Solis said he decided to seek Pinochet's trial after a report by an independent commission on torture and illegal imprisonment at Villa Grimaldi, a large suburban house hidden from the street by a high wall.

The house has been turned into a monument to victims of Pinochet's 1973-1990 government. It includes a flat, grass area with a wall carrying the names of some of those held there.

Under questioning by Solis, former secret police agent Ricardo Lawrence said Pinochet was aware of what happened at Villa Grimaldi, and even visited the place once.

In his request to the court, Solis wrote that the torturers were following "clear and specific orders from the director of the service, who was in turn following orders from his superior, the president of the republic and commander in chief of the army, Augusto Pinochet Ugarte."

Bachelet, who was elected last Sunday as Chile's first female president, usually avoids going into details on her time at Villa Grimaldi, but has said that she and her mother were kept blindfolded for long periods and were physically mistreated.

She has gained widespread praise for showing no rancor for what happened to her. The head of Chile's Catholic Church, Monsignor Alejandro Goic, called her "a symbol of reconciliation among Chileans."