WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department has reopened a long-dormant grand jury investigation aimed at indicting Gen. Augusto Pinochet for a notorious 1976 car bombing that killed former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and an American colleague on Washington's Embassy Row.
Six people were sent to prison years ago for the bombing, but the U.S. government had not targeted Pinochet for prosecution until the former dictator was arrested in Britain 17 months ago on a warrant from a Spanish judge looking into the murder of Spanish citizens in Chile during the 1970s.
Galvanized by the Spanish effort, U.S. human rights activists and victims' relatives demanded that the Justice Department revive its investigation into whether Pinochet ordered the assassination of Letelier, a prominent opponent of his regime. The powerful blast on Sept. 21, 1976, tore through Letelier's car as he drove into Sheridan Circle, killing him instantly and fatally wounding his 25-year-old American colleague, Ronni Moffitt.
The chances that Pinochet, if indicted, would be extradited to the United States to stand trial are remote, given his failing health and a host of legal problems posed by the antiquated extradition treaty between the two nations. But U.S. officials say an indictment would have symbolic value and could ratchet up the pressure on Chile to try Pinochet for human rights abuses during his 17 years in power.
''You've got to send a message with (terrorist) investigations, no matter how far back they go,'' said Thomas P. Carey, a counterterrorism official in the FBI's Washington Field Office. ''This was really a heinous crime.''
As part of the grand jury investigation, U.S. prosecutors have been seeking to interview witnesses in Chile. Wednesday, a team of American law enforcement officials arrived in Santiago for court proceedings involving 42 potential witnesses subpoenaed by Chile's Supreme Court on behalf of the U.S. government.
The Chilean high court approved the proceedings a week ago, the latest in a dramatic series of legal turns that have raised the possibility that Pinochet may be held responsible for thousands of murders and incidents of torture during his rule from 1973 to 1990. The court acted on the U.S. request less than two weeks after Pinochet's emotional return to Chile on March 3 from Britain, where authorities had released him on grounds of poor health.
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