Chile to probe ex-president's death

2011-01-28 14:01

Santiago - Chile is launching its first investigation into the death of socialist president Salvador Allende whose body was found in the presidential palace during a 1973 coup, officials said on Thursday.

Until now Allende's death, during the bloody US-backed coup that brought military dictator Augusto Pinochet to power on September 11 1973, had been ruled a suicide.

"What has not been investigated, the courts will investigate," said prosecutor Beatriz Pedrals, who has filed suit to probe 726 cases of alleged human rights abuse, including against Allende.

"This will finally establish what happened," she said, adding that she hoped all those responsible would be prosecuted and treated equally.

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

Allende was a Marxist narrowly elected to office in 1970. 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 - would usher in a pro-Soviet communist government.

Death ruled suicide

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.

Allende was found dead in the presidential palace as soldiers supporting the coup closed in and warplanes bombed the building. He was 65.

An official autopsy ruled that he had committed suicide, although the results have long been questioned by some prominent politicians and human rights groups.

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.

Chilean officials are also probing about 560 military officials for human rights abuses during the period of military rule. The cases include the death or disappearance of 3 150 people, and around 28 000 cases of alleged torture.

The probe into Allende's death comes after the judge in charge of co-ordinating the human rights investigations, Sergio Munoz, determined there were many cases where victims had not lodged any complaint.

Strong signal to government

Munoz appointed a prosecutor to verify how many victims were not represented, and file complaints on their behalf, including one for Allende.

"It is necessary to determine whether or not this was a suicide, and the circumstances" of the death, a person close to the matter said, asking not to be identified.

Lorena Pizarro, head of the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared, said the probe would send a "strong signal" to other branches of government.

"No crime should be left unsolved. We're talking about more than 700 cases, which have never been investigated, and the inclusion of Allende is a powerful sign," Pizarro said.

President Sebastian Pinera's spokesperson Ena Von Baer said the administration respects the decision of the judicial system, "and we believe all these cases need to be investigated".

Last year, Pinera rejected a controversial Catholic Church proposal that repentant members of the military be pardoned for human rights abuses committed under Pinochet.

Socialist Party leader Osvaldo Andrade also welcomed the news, saying that "any initiative that offers truth would be well-received by us".

Fight for justice continues

Allende was the father of Chilean lawmaker Isabel Allende, who has long pressed for compensation for all the victims of Pinochet's regime.

Isabel Allende, aged 66, issued a formal request from Spain, where she is travelling, for the Chilean government to investigate her father's death.

"It is important to carry out all the judicial actions that seek to establish the truth of all the deaths and disappearances" since the coup, she told El Mercurio, Chile's leading newspaper.

After the coup Isabel Allende, her two sisters and her mother - Allende's widow Hortensia Bussi - moved to Cuba and then Mexico. Isabel Allende did not return to Chile until 1989.

The novelist also named Isabel Allende is a relative of the late president.

Bussi, who also continued to fight for justice, died in 2009 at the age of 94.