A Chilean judge on Monday indicted former dictator Augusto Pinochet to stand trial for murder and kidnappings carried out under his 1973-1990 iron-fisted rule, also placing him under house arrest.
However, in a dramatic day for Pinochet, 89, his lawyers late Monday won an appeals court suspension of the order placing him under house arrest while the charges against him are reviewed by the higher court.
Judge Juan Guzman Tapia had filed charges based on nine victims of "Operation Condor," a conspiracy of 1970s South American military dictatorships to kill their opponents and spirit away their bodies.
The case could place Pinochet in the dock for the first time for alleged human rights abuses conducted during his 17-year rule.
"It is hard to say with words what it was like to hear this indictment by a judge," said a visibly moved Viviana Diaz, head of Families of Missing Detainees, one of the main anti-Pinochet groups.
"I think a very important process has started in the search for justice and truth," said lawyer Julia Urquieta.
Pinochet's lawyer, Pablo Rodriguez, said Pinochet was too old to stand trial.
"This is an abuse of the most basic human rights of a person who is put on trial without being able to defend himself," Rodriguez said.
Pinochet had enjoyed immunity from prosecution in a self-ratified amnesty, as a former de-facto president of Chile, and on health grounds by claiming he suffered from "mild dementia."
However, Pinochet's appearance last year on a Miami television station in which he joked with the interviewer convinced Chile's courts that he was mentally agile.
At the same time, accusations of corruption tarnished Pinochet's image, even among his supporters, who had held him up as a selfless warrior against Communism.
Some 3,000 political opponents were killed under his regime, according to an official toll.
Earlier this month, the government of President Ricardo Lagos released a report of tortures committed during the dictatorship. And a month ago, Chile's armed forces for the first time took responsibility for dictatorship-era abuses.
Judge Guzman Tapia has for years built a case against Pinochet, using testimony from families and repentant soldiers to dig up mass graves all around Chile, but Pinochet has enjoyed popularity among Chile's elite.
Guzman Tapia placed Pinochet under house arrest for six weeks in 2001 for his role in the "Caravan of Death," in which soldiers roamed Chile in the days after the coup, hunting down and executing potential opponents.
However, the Supreme Court released Pinochet on his claim of "mild dementia."
After the Miami interview, the US Senate found that Pinochet had squirreled away millions of dollars in Riggs Bank in Washington, tarnishing his image here.
Chile's tax service and the State Defense Council opened corruption investigations and Chile's Supreme Court revoked his immunity in August.
Pinochet told Guzman Tapia that he did not know about Operation Condor, a secret agreement between military governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay to share intelligence and to dispose of opponents' bodies in each other's countries.
The former president told the judge he could not be bothered with "small details" such as Condor.
He and his lawyers maintain his innocence.
Pinochet took power in Chile after a 1973 coup d'etat, which deposed Socialist president Salvador Allende.