SANTIAGO, Chile – The government said on Wednesday that it has been informed of a multimillion gold deposit in the name of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet at a bank in Hong Kong. Newspapers put the total at some US$160 million.
"We received information through one of our diplomatic missions abroad several days ago," Foreign Minister Alejandro Foxley told Radio Cooperativa of Santiago, commenting on reports by two Santiago newspapers.
Foxley said the information, which included photocopies of documents, "is not official yet" but was relayed to the courts that have been investigating Pinochet's fortune abroad for more than two years.
A spokesman for Pinochet, retired Gen. Guillermo Garin, said he had no information the alleged deposit at the HSBC bank in Hong Kong.
"This report makes me laugh," Garin told the Associated Press by telephone. "I had never heard anything about this before, so I have never talked about this with him (Pinochet)."
"But I have no doubt whatsoever that this report has no real basis at all," he added.
Pinochet's chief defense lawyer, Pablo Rodriguez, also denied the report, saying, "The only gold Gen. Pinochet owns is his wedding ring."
"This report is totally and absolutely false. He doesn't own a single gram of gold at any bank," Rodriguez said. "And if a single gram appears, I will be the first one to resign as his lawyer."
Rodriguez suggested the government had made the disclosure as "a smoke screen to distract attention" from a probe into possible corruption at the government's sports promotion agency.
El Mercurio, one of the newspapers that first published the reports Wednesday, quoted a representative for HSBC, Garet Hewett, as saying he cannot confirm or deny the report.
El Mercurio and the government-owned daily La Nacion said the gold deposit allegedly owned by Pinochet was worth some US$160 million.
The discovery was part of an investigation into Pinochet's fortune abroad that began in 2004 after a U.S. Senate investigative committee disclosed that the 90-year-old former ruler held millions of dollars at the Riggs Bank in Washington.
Since then, Pinochet's fortune at several foreign banks had been estimated at US$28 million. He allegedly used false passports to open some of the accounts.
Pinochet is under indictment on tax evasion charges, and the money has been frozen.
The judge handling the case, Juan Gonzalez, confirmed receiving information about the gold. He said the case currently is stalled in the Santiago Court of Appeals following a request by Pinochet's defense for a new judge.
Rodriguez and other associates of Pinochet have insisted the money comes from legitimate sources, including savings, donations and investments.
Pinochet also is charged with human rights abuses relating to his 1973-1990 regime. His immunity as a former president has been lifted in two other cases, clearing the way for more charges.
No case against Pinochet has reached the sentencing stage, however, as the courts have dropped the charges on health grounds. Pinochet suffers from a mild dementia resulting from several strokes. He also has diabetes, arthritis and requires a pacemaker.