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Free us from jail, Pinochet sons and daughters say

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The sons and daughters of late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked to be freed from prison on Friday after spending a night behind bars accused of siphoning off public funds for their own use.

Judicial sources told Reuters a judge had agreed to their request but that the final decision would lie with Chile’s Court of Appeal, which could rule as early as Saturday.

Meanwhile, Pinochet’s 84-year-old widow Lucia Hiriart remained in hospital under preventative custody. She was one of 22 people arrested on Thursday as part of the embezzlement investigation.

“Her blood pressure is stabilizing,” said Ivan Moreira, a right-wing member of the Chilean Congress and a close friend of the Pinochet family who visited her on Friday morning.

“She is going through a difficult time of great anguish,” he told reporters.

Hiriart’s lawyers said her illness was caused by the shock of being placed under arrest.

The 22 suspects were detained on the orders of Judge Carlos Cerda, who is investigating allegations that Pinochet stole millions of dollars of public funds during his 1973-1990 rule and channeled it into private bank accounts.

Prosecutors say Lucia Hiriart and her five middle-aged children -- Augusto, Lucia, Marco Antonio, Jacqueline and Veronica -- were involved in the embezzlement. They deny the charges.

Pinochet, the most notorious of the military leaders who dominated South America through much of the Cold War, died last December aged 91 without ever being brought to trial to face either embezzlement or human rights charges.

The fraud allegations seriously tarnished his image in his latter years, even among those who supported him politically.

A 23rd suspect in the case remained at large on Friday. Police were trying to trace him to bring him to jail.

Under Chilean law, suspects can be kept in prison while an investigation is under way, even if they have not been found guilty of any crime.

The suspects include friends and colleagues of the former dictator, including senior members of the Chilean military who served under his government.

Pinochet grabbed power in a U.S.-supported coup against elected socialist President Salvador Allende.

More than 3,000 people died in political violence during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Some 28,000 people were tortured and hundreds of thousands of Chileans went into exile.

Friday marked the 19th anniversary of Chile’s historic “No” vote in a plebiscite on Pinochet’s rule. That vote forced him to relinquish power in early 1990.

Additional reporting by Erik Lopez