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In Chile, pace of justice quickens

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First a Chilean court stripped immunity from leaders of the country's 17-year "dirty war" last month. Then the government released a report on state-sponsored torture committed during the 1973-90 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, with President Ricardo Lagos promising compensation for the victims. Now a judge has ruled that Mr. Pinochet, after years of avoiding justice, be placed under house arrest and stand trial for his alleged involvement in the abuses.

The ruling reversed two earlier Chilean court decisions to exempt Pinochet from trial on health grounds and upheld a lower court decision to strip him of immunity from prosecution, which is granted to former presidents in Chile. It is, say prosecution lawyers, the most important in a series of legal defeats for the former general, which will serve as a precedent for other pending human rights cases in the country.

"We now expect other indictments will follow," attorney Eduardo Contreras told reporters.

After years of slow-motion justice, the string of high-profile moves underscores a new willingness by Chilean society to look straight at, and deal decisively with, its dark past. "The mood in Chile is changing," says Sebastian Brett, Human Rights Watch's representative in Chile. "The polarization over the military government, which took place for the first five years of transition [into democratic government], has shifted."

On Monday Judge Juan Gúzman pronounced the 89-year-old Pinochet mentally competent to stand trial for human rights abuses that took place during his regime. This came after years of international arrest warrants, exemptions for ill health, and dismissals of charges. "It was not difficult," Mr. Gúzman said of his decision.

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