SANTIAGO, Chile - Chile's highest court ruled yesterday that ex-President Augusto Pinochet can stand trial on kidnapping and murder charges despite his advanced age, boosting hopes among his detractors for a high-profile human-rights trial.
In a 3-2 vote, the Supreme Tribunal rejected an appeal by Pinochet's lawyers, who argued that Pinochet, 89, could not face charges because he had been ruled mentally unfit for trial in 2002.
The court said the 2002 ruling had no bearing on the legality of the current charges and there was enough evidence to justify a trial.
Still pending, however, is a separate appeal based on the general's mental fitness. His lawyers argue that he suffers from age-related dementia and can't properly defend himself.
The court hasn't said when it will rule on that specific issue.
A diabetic who uses a wheelchair, Pinochet no longer cuts the fearsome image, in sunglasses and Prussian-style military uniform, that he did after seizing power on Sept. 11, 1973, in a bloody U.S.-backed coup.
Official reports say 3,198 were killed in political violence during his 17 years in power and more than 27,000 people were tortured.
But the court's endorsement of the legal underpinning for the one murder and nine kidnapping charges against him heartened those who have long sought his prosecution.
Eduardo Contreras, a human-rights lawyer involved in several cases against Pinochet, said attorneys would now push to have Pinochet booked and fingerprinted "like any delinquent."
Pinochet was spared that indignity in 2002, when similar charges were brought against him, only to be thrown out when the Supreme Tribunal ruled that his mental condition was too deteriorated to try him.
"After 30 years, finally justice is beginning to be served," said Miriam Tamayo outside the courtroom.
Tamayo's brother Manuel Jesus disappeared in March 1976 in Mendoza, Argentina, allegedly the victim of a South America-wide pact among military governments in the 1970s to pool intelligence to capture, torture or kill their political opponents throughout the region.
That agreement, known as Operation Condor, was the subject of a probe by investigative Judge Juan Guzman that led to the charges against Pinochet.
Regardless of what the court eventually decides about Pinochet's mental capacity, yesterday's ruling ensures that Guzman's probe of Operation Condor will continue. Several officials from the Pinochet regime are facing charges in the Operation Condor probe.
The Supreme Tribunal's ruling came after more than two years of legal maneuvering once the court ruled that Pinochet's dementia was too severe for him to be tried.
Guzman reopened the case against Pinochet after the ex-president appeared in a television interview broadcast in Miami showing clear control of his mental faculties. Then, last year, a judge looking into Pinochet's undeclared millions discovered that the ex-dictator still managed his secret accounts.