Exhumation to solve riddle of Allende's death

The remains of former Chilean president Salvador Allende will be exhumed to ascertain if he committed suicide, which was ruled as the official cause of death, or whether he was murdered during the 1973 coup, a judge ordered on Friday.


AFP - Decades after president Salvador Allende died in a 1973 coup, Chile is set to exhume his body to determine once and for all whether he took his own life or was murdered by General Augusto Pinochet's henchmen.

Chilean judge Mario Carroza on Friday ordered the disinterment after receiving a request from Allende relatives, and the action should take place in "the second half of May," a spokesman for the judiciary told AFP.

Until now Allende's death, during the bloody military coup that brought 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.

Allende's own family has been leaning towards the theory that he killed himself.

"It's not that the family has changed their minds, or that we have doubts that we didn't have before, but we support a criminal investigation that has never happened," socialist MP Isabel Allende, a daughter of the late president, told CNN-Chile.

"We think it is extremely important for the country and the world, that we legally establish the causes and circumstances of his death, which occurred under extreme violence."

The exhumation is a logical extension of an investigation, announced by a Chilean prosecutor in January, into the death of Allende as well as 725 other unprobed human rights complaints against Pinochet's 1973-1990 military dictatorship.

But the family nevertheless made a symbolic formal request for an exhumation, Isabel Allende said earlier this week.

Once Allende's remains are removed from his marble tomb in Santiago, a new autopsy will be performed by experts at the Legal Medical Service.

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 nationalization 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, at age 65, have been a point of contention for decades.

The president's body underwent an autopsy at the Santiago Military hospital hours 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, apparently with an AK-47 assault rifle presented by Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The death was never the subject of a criminal investigation.

A respected medical examiner, Luis Ravanal, fed doubts about Allende's death in a 2008 report in which he stated, on the basis of the 1973 autopsy, that Allende's injuries were not consistent with a self-inflicted gunshot.

Chilean journalist Camilo Taufic, author of a book on the coup, supports the theory of "assisted suicide," in which an Allende guard would have given the coup de grace with a pistol after Allende shot himself.

Isabel Allende recalled Friday how the family was never able to see her father's body. It was transported by helicopter to Vina del Mar, 120 kilometers (75 miles) away from Santiago on the Chilean coast, where he was first laid to rest in the presence of his wife Hortensia Bussi and his three daughters.

"They did not let my mother open the coffin," Isabel said of her mother, who died in 2009 at age 94.

Pinochet's government is blamed for at least 3,000 killings.

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


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning