Chile's Delicate Dance around Pinochet Prosecution ; the Supreme Court Tuesday Ordered Evaluation of the Aging Ex- Leader, before Questioning Can Proceed

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Efforts to bring former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to trial for kidnapping and murder at times resemble a tango through a thicket of thorns: determined steps forward; then back; snags, scratches, a whirl of activity.

The judges overseeing the case seem to be pushing the case forward as quickly as prudence allows. A determination on whether the former strongman will be charged officially could come in January.

"The courts seem a little bit worn down by the length of the process," says Emilio Meneses, a political science professor at Catholic University in the capital, Santiago. "They seem to have decided that there has to be a final conclusion, clarification for everybody as to whether there is going to be a trial."

The case has bitterly divided Chile. Mr. Pinochet's ardent supporters stage vocal rallies, declaring he saved the country by overthrowing elected Marxist President Salvador Allende in a 1973 military coup.

Families and friends of those executed or "disappeared" during 17 years of military rule are equally vocal in their demands for justice. Political violence claimed some 3,200 lives, according to a government report completed shortly after Pinochet stepped down in 1990.

Chile's Supreme Court stripped Pinochet of his immunity as a senator-for-life in August, paving the way for legal action. The decision came five months after his return from London, where Pinochet spent 503 days under house arrest as British authorities processed a Spanish extradition request. The request was dismissed on grounds of ill health.

Mr. Meneses says Chile is in "political limbo" - though not crisis - as the matter winds through its courts. Fallout has "contaminated many aspects of political life," he says, causing, for instance, the postponement of efforts to reform the Defense Ministry and clouding roundtable talks between human rights activists and the armed forces. The two sides are supposed to conclude an investigation Jan. 6 into the estimated 1,000 people still missing, and presumed killed. …