A Chilean judge is turning the historic case of a priest tortured on board a Pinochet-era "torture ship" into a travesty of justice, Amnesty International said today, after the dropping of charges against most of those implicated in his death.
Tomorrow is the hearing of a fresh appeal launched by the family of Father Michael Woodward against the presiding judge’s recent decisions, including the absolving of 19 out of 29 former naval and police officials initially indicted.
The Catholic priest and dual British-Chilean national is believed to have died following torture aboard the naval vessel Esmeralda in 1973, which served as an interrogation centre for scores of prisoners that year.
The boat still serves as a naval training vessel and a "roving ambassador" for the Chilean government.
“This judge is turning Michael Woodward’s case into a travesty of justice,” said Guadalupe Marengo, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Americas.
“The throwing out and watering down of charges for crimes under international law, even after reported admissions of guilt by some of those under investigation, is an utter disgrace.”
The 10 remaining former low-ranking officials facing charges are now being prosecuted only with abduction, rather than with crimes against humanity such as the torture and disappearance of the priest.
“The high-level officials who gave the orders for these horrific acts are being let off the hook,” said Guadalupe Marengo.
The investigating judge, Miguel Julio Miranda was appointed in March. He cut short the exhaustive investigations of his predecessor Judge Maria Eliana Quezada, and threw out a raft of charges without allowing lawyers and Woodward’s family time to appeal.
Even the Chilean State Defence Council is appealing the judge’s decisions, which were made by the judge without being directly provided to this government body as required by law.
Amnesty International has documented a number of cases of political imprisonment and torture aboard the Esmeralda in 1973, just after the military coup headed by General Augusto Pinochet.
Father Woodward was arrested by a naval patrol in Valparaiso on 16 September 1973, then taken to the Esmeralda where he was interrogated and tortured. Six days later, he was pronounced dead in the Naval Hospital in Valparaiso, but his body has never been found.
Survivors of interrogation aboard the Esmeralda have described savage beatings, electric shocks, and sexual assault.
The Esmeralda is currently in the midst of a tour of the Americas, and has recently been the subject of local protest against its docking in Canada.
“It is bitterly ironic that the Esmeralda is still going from international port to international port as a so-called ambassador for Chile, even as those involved in this infamous case of torture below its decks seem to be getting away with murder,” said Guadalupe Marengo.
“The Chilean government must ensure that all those responsible for these heinous crimes, including those who gave the orders, are brought to justice.”