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Pinochet’s immunity now on trial

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SANTIAGO, Chile — Chile's Supreme Court met Tuesday to decide whether Augusto Pinochet should be stripped of his immunity from prosecution, which stands in the way of the former dictator being tried for alleged human rights abuses.

Dozens of friends and foes of the military's father figure, who ruled Chile with an iron fist between 1973-1990, braved a cold morning to wait for the landmark vote behind separate barricades outside the highest court of the land.

A simple majority verdict from the Supreme Court's 20 judges will decide Pinochet's fate. If the white-haired grandfather loses the ruling, it could open a floodgate of charges against him. The court's ruling cannot be appealed.

Human rights lawyers say that Pinochet's position as a senator for life — which gives him immunity from prosecution — should be removed because of his alleged involvement in a "Death Caravan" that slaughtered leftists after his forces took over in a 1973 coup.

Pinochet returned to Chile in early March after 503 days under arrest in Britain. He avoided extradition to Spain — where a judge had wanted to try him on torture charges — on the grounds that he was too ill for a trial. Britain's drawn-out extradition decision turned the world's media spotlight on Pinochet's rights record.

Judges to discuss case in private

On Tuesday, hundreds of armed police patrolled the streets around the Supreme Court in the Chilean capital's center. Several armored vehicles were parked on side streets, witnesses said.

Supreme Court President Hernan Alvarez was one of the first judges to arrive at the court, which convened at 9 a.m. (1300 GMT). The judges are scheduled to discuss the case in private for at least two hours.

"If the vote is clear cut, the Supreme Court could empower me to make the ruling known immediately, without waiting for a verdict to be transcribed," Alvarez said.

In May, a Santiago court voted 13-9 to strip Pinochet, 84, of his immunity from prosecution. Pinochet appealed against that ruling in the Supreme Court.

Two weeks ago, judges heard testimony from lawyers representing the families of victims of Pinochet's 17-year rule and from lawyers defending him. Pinochet's supporters revere him as a savior who stopped Chile from turning into a Marxist state.

"This is the day we have waited for. Let's hope the Supreme Court strips Pinochet of his immunity in this landmark case," said human rights lawyer Hugo Gutierrez.

On the other side of Santiago, supporters of the retired general gathered at the Pinochet Foundation, which awards military scholarships, to wait for the court ruling.

Pinochet ousted Allende in bloody coup

Pinochet ousted socialist President Salvador Allende in a bloody September 1973 coup. More than 3,000 people died or disappeared while Pinochet was president and tens of thousands of other Chileans fled the country.

One of the most infamous incidents of the era involved the so-called "Death Caravan," a military helicopter unit that blitzed through northern Chile in October 1973 in search of union leaders and left-wing supporters of Allende. At least 72 people were killed.

One widely held belief is that the Supreme Court will uphold the previous ruling, which took away the general's immunity from prosecution but Pinochet could ultimately avoid being dragged through the courts because of poor health.

In 1999, he suffered at least two strokes, which his doctors said caused irreversible brain damage. He has diabetes and uses a heart pacemaker.

His lawyers say he is too old to remember events or properly communicate with them to help map a defense strategy. Chilean law excuses people from trial only if they are certified as "mad" or "demented."