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Search for remains of British priest killed when 1973 Chilean coup

Wednesday, December 9th 2009 - 08:23 UTC
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Chilean navy's iconic flagship, the Esmeralda Chilean navy's iconic flagship, the Esmeralda

Investigators will be searching for the body of torture victim Father Micheal Woodward at a cemetery in the Chilean city of Valparaiso (Region V) through next month, the victim’s family informed Chilean press on Monday.

Judge Eliana Quezada ordered the excavation of mass graves at the Playa Ancha cemetery last week in connection with the arrest of four retired naval officials on human rights abuse charges. The charges relate to the torture of political prisoners such as Father Woodward on board the Chilean navy's iconic flagship, the Esmeralda, after the 1973 military coup.

Father Woodward's disappearance has a high profile due to persistent efforts by his family and human rights groups to resolve the case. The family confirmed to the press that 1973 aerial photos showed digging work taking place in an area of the cemetery believed to hold the body.

The priest was arrested in Valparaiso by a naval patrol on September 16, 1973, five days after the military coup that replaced the elected government of President Salvador Allende with a military junta led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Woodward died at the Valparaiso naval hospital on September 22. The official cause of his death was “cardio-respiratory arrest.” But this official version has always been contested, with his family insisting that the priest died as a result of torture.

Despite official denials that Chile’s Navy tortured people on board the Esmeralda and other boats, evidence confirming torture has become increasingly compelling.

Witness reports claim that Woodward was beaten and repeatedly dunked in a swimming pool until he suffocated. He was taken to the Esmeralda, which was then be used to hold political opponents of the military regime, where attempts were made to revive him. His body was then buried anonymously in a mass grave with other victims.

Last year a former second in command on the Esmeralda testified that the British-Chilean priest died on the ship from torture complications. This admission should help prosecutors seeking justice for the family. Previous charges against naval personal relating to Woodward's death have been unsuccessful due to a lack of evidence.

The Esmeralda was docked last week and her departure for an international regatta in Brazil postponed as a result of the reopening of Woodward torture case.

Traditionally used as a floating embassy for Chile, the vessel’s use continues to be controversial as more evidence of her tainted past emerges.

The government's official Rettig report into the treatment of prisoners by the military regime states that numerous Chilean vessels, including the Esmeralda and cargo ship the Lebu, were used as detention and torture centres by the Navy following the 1973 coup.

Amnesty international estimates that nearly 4,000 prisoners passed through the Lebu and at least 500 were held on the Esmeralda up to December 1973. Survivors relate that they were subjected to beatings and water and electrical torture.

Amnesty International estimates that nearly 500,000 Chileans were imprisoned at some point during the Pinochet regime, and official government investigations confirm 3,200 deaths and 28,000 torture victims.

One of the most famous victims was the folk singer Victor Jara, whose remains were finally laid to rest last weekend.

By James Fowler - Santiago Times

Categories: Politics, Latin America.

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