Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Shadow of Former President’s Death Hangs Over Pinochet

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Aug 21 2006 (IPS) - The daughter of former Chilean president Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-1970), who died in 1982 from mysterious complications stemming from a simple surgical procedure, accused former dictator Augusto Pinochet of being involved in her father’s death, after the surgeon who operated on him admitted his suspicions that “a sinister hand” was at work in Frei’s death.

Former Chilean senator Carmen Frei told a Chilean radio station by telephone from Canada that General Pinochet, who ruled Chile with an iron hand from 1973 to 1990, probably had something to do with her father’s death.

Dr. Augusto Larraín, who operated on Frei Montalva in 1982 for a hiatal or diaphragmatic hernia, said late last week that “in my opinion there was an external chemical agent. But I can’t say what it was, who used it, or how it was used.”

“We all know that in our country there was one person in charge, and that not a leaf moved without him knowing about it. All of the suspicions point in that direction,” said Frei, who added that Judge Alejandro Madrid, who has been investigating the case for six years, may soon attempt to get the 90-year-old Pinochet stripped of the immunity from prosecution he enjoys as a former head of state.

Before any criminal proceeding against the former dictator can begin, the courts have to decide, on the merits of each case, whether to strip him of immunity from prosecution. Each decision is separate, as the courts are not bound by past precedent.

“We already knew about this version, but it was sort of a shock to hear it from the doctor himself, and it makes us feel even more confident that we are getting to the truth, even though it has been a long and very painful process,” added the former senator.

Larraín had never spoken publicly of the former president’s death until the interviews that were broadcast by two local TV stations last Thursday.

After Frei Montalva, one of the main leaders of the opposition to the Pinochet regime, went in for surgery, his health unexpectedly took a turn for the worse, and he underwent a second operation.

But according to Larraín, “there were no signs of swelling or inflammation; in other words, there were no germs – it was a completely clean and clear abdomen.”

However, during the second operation, Larraín says he saw a kind of sore that “I had never seen before, and I have never seen since,” which could only be explained as a local chemical reaction. That is what caused the infection that led to the former president’s death, he stated.

“It was absolutely obvious to me that there was a local chemical reaction. Something caused the local inflammation,” said the doctor. In his view, the cause may have been a chemical agent applied in a compress after the first surgery.

In response to Larraín’s statements, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said it was necessary to find out the truth about the death of the former president, the long-time leader of Chile’s Christian Democracy Party, which forms part of the centre-left coalition that has governed Chile since 1990.

“It is very important for the truth to be known – not only for the Frei family, but for all of Chile – and for the perpetrators to be held accountable,” the president, who belongs to the co-governing Socialist Party, said last Friday.

Pinochet’s defence attorney Pablo Rodríguez said the retired army general “had nothing to do with Frei Montalva’s death.”

He said Carmen Frei’s remarks indicating that all of the suspicions pointed in the direction of an order given by Pinochet to kill her father were “injurious.”

Rodríguez said he was “certain that president Frei’s death was due to medical reasons and not caused by the intervention of third parties. And if that had occurred, I am also absolutely certain that General Pinochet had nothing to do with it and knew nothing about it.”

The lawyer asserted that every time the courts hand down a ruling involving Pinochet, “a propaganda campaign is automatically mounted to create a hostile atmosphere towards the former president.”

Rodríguez was referring to bad news received by Pinochet last Friday, when the Supreme Court upheld a ruling to strip him of immunity from prosecution in a case in which he is facing charges for misappropriation of public funds, known as the “Riggs Case” because of the millions of dollars found in secret accounts in the names of Pinochet, his family and his closest associates in the Washington-based Riggs Bank.

Judge Carlos Cerca can now continue with his investigation of Pinochet’s use of public funds during the dictatorship and in the first few years after the return to democracy, while Pinochet continued to hold the post of army chief.

Another of Frei Montalva’s children, former president Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (1994-2000), who is currently speaker of the Senate, said that “for the first time there is evidence showing that an attempt was made against the life of a Chilean president.”

“I am very pleased that what occurred during the operation (which, incidentally, was not authorised by my family) has finally been clarified 20 years later,” said the senator.

Since the year 2000, his sister Carmen has publicly stated that their father’s death was caused by chemist Eugenio Berríos, a former agent of the dictatorship’s secret police, DINA, which answered directly to Pinochet through then Colonel Manuel Contreras..

The Frei family attorney, Álvaro Varela, said the elements provided by Larraín “show that third parties had a hand in the death of former president Frei Montalva” and that Pinochet is linked to the case through the participation of Berríos, whose murder in Uruguay in the early 1990s is the focus of another court case.

“I don’t think that what we are hearing about ex-president Frei Montalva’s death comes as any surprise to people in Chile. As the investigation advances, it is becoming more and more clear that he was murdered, although there are many details that have not yet been clarified,” Viviana Díaz, the head of the Group of Families of the Detained-Disappeared, told IPS.

With respect to Pinochet’s possible role in the case, Díaz said that “all of the investigations underway will lead to him, because it was he himself who said that not a single leaf moved in this country without him knowing about it. He is now falling prey to his own words.”

According to a 1991 truth commission report, 3,000 people were killed and/or “disappeared” by the dictatorship, while tens of thousands were tortured.

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