/ 15 April 2011

Judge orders Chilean president exhumed

A Chilean judge ordered the remains of former president Salvador Allende exhumed for an investigation into whether he was murdered in a 1973 coup led by General Augusto Pinochet or took his own life.

Until now Allende’s death, during the bloody United States-backed coup that brought military dictator Pinochet to power in September of that year, had been ruled a suicide, although that has long been questioned by some politicians and human rights groups.

Judge Mario Carroza ordered the measure after receiving a request from Allende’s relatives, and the action should take place in “the second half of May,” a spokesperson for the judiciary said.

Once the body is exhumed from Allende’s marble tomb in a Santiago cemetery, it will undergo analysis by experts at the Legal Medical Service aimed at determining once and for all the cause of his death.

“This [probe] should definitively clarify a point in our history that was anything but peaceful,” Allende family lawyer Pamela Pereira said earlier in the week. “This will finally establish what happened.”

The probe is part of the investigation of hundreds of human rights complaints against Pinochet’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship.

Allende was a Marxist who was democratically — and narrowly — elected to office in 1970, but his ascent to power was not welcomed by all.

At the time, conservatives in Chile and Washington feared his attempts to pave a Chilean path toward socialism, including the nationalisation of US mining interests, could usher in a pro-Soviet communist government.

Henry Kissinger, US secretary of state under then-president Richard Nixon, made quite clear what US intentions were after Allende’s election.

“The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves … I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” Kissinger said at the time.

The circumstances surrounding Allende’s death have been a point of contention for decades.

The president’s body underwent an autopsy at the Santiago Military hospital after his death on September 11, 1973 at La Moneda, the presidential palace, which was under aerial bombardment and a ground assault at the time.

Authorities of the era, mainly based on testimony from a doctor who saw the body, claimed that Allende committed suicide by shooting himself in the chin, although his death was never the subject of a criminal investigation.

In January, for the first time, a Chilean prosecutor announced the first full investigation into Allende’s death, along with 725 other unprobed cases of human rights violations which occurred during the Pinochet dictatorship.

Pinochet’s government is blamed for at least 3 000 killings, including murders and those who were among the ranks of the “disappeared”.

Pinochet’s 17-year, iron-fisted rule became the longest lasting dictatorship in South America. He died in December 2006 of a heart attack aged 91, with a slew of judicial cases still open against the regime. — AP