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Pinochet indicted on tax evasion charges

SANTIAGO, Chile — Two days short of his 90th birthday, Gen. Augusto Pinochet was placed under house arrest Wednesday at his Santiago mansion for alleged tax evasion — not the thousands of deaths and disappearances for which opponents have long tried to have him imprisoned.

Lawyers pursuing the former dictator said the indictment on corruption charges related to his multimillion-dollar overseas accounts still was a major victory. Several relatives of the dictatorship's victims cheered and embraced at the courthouse.

Pinochet's attorneys immediately appealed the ruling on grounds of his ill health, the same factor that has blocked earlier trials.

Pinochet was charged with evading $2.4 million in taxes, using four false passports to open bank accounts abroad, submitting a false government document to a foreign bank and filing a false report on his assets.

But Judge Carlos Cerda said Pinochet does not pose any danger at his age and could be freed on a $22,000 bond that would have to be approved by the Santiago Court of Appeals.

It was the first time the retired general was indicted for charges not related to the massive human rights abuses during his 1973-90 regime.

Now a stooped, white-haired man who walks with difficulty, Pinochet is a far different figure from the scowling soldier in dark glasses and officer's cap who appeared at the head of the military junta that overthrew Chile's elected socialist government in 1973.

The coup set off a wave of terror and torture as the new government tried to root out communist influence by seizing thousands of suspected leftists — so many people at first that a soccer stadium was needed to hold them. Many were never seen again.

According to an official report by the civilian government that succeeded Pinochet in 1990, 3,190 people were killed for political reasons during his regime. More than 1,000 others remain unaccounted for after being arrested. Tens of thousands fled their homeland to exile.

Attorney Hugo Gutierrez, who has spent years seeking to have Pinochet tried on rights charges, called the corruption arrest "a major achievement for the human rights movement."

"If we hadn't pursued Pinochet through all these years, what happened today would have been impossible," Gutierrez said. He said it "shows there is hope" for the many Chileans who want to see Pinochet tried for the suffering inflicted by his regime.

But a trial was not guaranteed. Pinochet was indicted twice before on human rights charges, but courts blocked the trials on health grounds. Two other prosecution attempts were stopped for the same reason at earlier stages.

Health problems also thwarted attempts by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon to try Pinochet in Spain on human rights charges. British authorities allowed Pinochet to return to Chile, on health grounds, in 2000 after detaining him in London on a Spanish warrant.

Health again appeared to be Pinochet's line of defense Wednesday. Defense attorney Pablo Rodriguez said his client "is absolutely prevented by his health to face a trial."

Pinochet's spokesman, retired Gen. Guillermo Garin, said the former leader cannot face a trial because "he has very serious health limitations. It's sad to see a person who dedicated his entire life to his country facing this situation."

Court-appointed doctors recently determined that while Pinochet has health problems, including mild dementia, they are not serious enough to make him unfit for trial. They alleged that Pinochet tried to make his problems appear worse than they are.

Pinochet, who rarely appears in public, also suffers from diabetes and arthritis and has a pacemaker.

Garin said Pinochet's house in the affluent La Dehesa Santiago neighborhood "is virtually a private clinic," with army doctors always on call.

The first report of accounts abroad came from a U.S. Senate investigative report on the Riggs Bank in Washington, where Pinochet had $8 million at the time. Since then, accounts have been found in England, Gibraltar and elsewhere. Cerda and his predecessor in the case, Sergio Munoz, have estimated his fortune at $28 million.

Pinochet's lawyers and associates insist the money came from legitimate donations, savings and interest on investments.

The general faces scores of other criminal allegations filed by relatives of victims of his regime.

He also has been stripped of his immunity from prosecution in a human rights case known as Operation Colombo, in which a judge must soon make a decision on whether to indict him for the disappearance of 15 dissidents in the early years of his regime.