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In 1997 at a ceremony in Valparaiso´s Iglesia La Matriz a plaque was fixed to the wall. It read:

“Fr. Michael Woodward who lived and worked with the poor in Valparaiso for many years – his friends and colleagues from the Engineering Faculty, King¨s College, London University”. It ends: “Born 1932 – Assassinated 1973”

Michael had dual nationality, having been born in Valparaiso of a British father and Chilean mother. He finished his schooling in England at Downside College and graduated in civil engineering before returning to Chile where he became a priest. He was ordained in 1961.

As a priest he was increasingly drawn to the plight of the workers and the poor. Like others in the diocese of Valparaíso, he lived and worked amongst them, becoming a worker priest in the Las Habas shipyards. Later, he joined MAPU, an offshoot of the Christian Democrat party which, as from 1971, formed part of Salvador Allende´s Unidad Popular government. He was convinced that only by active involvement in a program for social reform could a just society be achieved. He was also a member of the Christian for Socialism movement which practised the theology of liberation.

At the time of the military coup in September 1973, Michael was a member of the staff of the Universidad Católica de Valparaíso and worked in the Centro de Estudios y Capacitación Laboral (CESCLA). This Centre provided opportunities for higher education to workers and Michael was elected by the students to run CESCLA´s summer school in Quillota and La Calera. Michael lived in a poor area in the hills above Valparaíso in a house which he had built himself. He was President of the neighbourhood JAP, an organisation which monitored food rationing and fought against black marketeering.

Immediately after the coup, Michael´s name was included in the list of those who were ordered, by street loudspeakers and radio, to present themselves to the authorities. He took refuge in the house of a friend but after a few days decided to return home. He told friends that he had nothing to conceal and he refused to consider the possibility of asking for protection from the British authorities. He went back to his house and was picked up by a naval patrol on 22nd September in the early hours of the morning.

According to witnesses, Michael was taken to local headquarters of the Carabineros, where he was brutally beaten. From there he was taken to the Valparaíso docks and was held both on the Lebu, a merchant vessel commandeered by the Navy, and on the Esmeralda, a naval training ship which at the time of the coup had been transformed into a prison ship. Michael was seen by various witnesses including one who said that he had been tortured and described his injuries. It is assuemed that the interrogators, from the Navy´s Servicio de Intelligencia wanted information about some of his friends. He did not betray them.

A naval doctor from the cruiser Latorre, moored nearby, was summoned to the Esmeralda to attend to Michael. He found that he was suffering from internal injuries which had clearly been caused by severe blows to the body. The doctor told his commanding officer that Michael could not live for more than an hour and he was taken to the Naval Hospital at Plata Ancha. He died on the way.

A death certificate was issued by the Naval Hospital, stating that Michael had died on September 22nd “on the public highway”. Cause of death was given as heart failure. The Navy refused the request of the Diocesan authorities to arrange the burial and Michael´s body was placed in the common grave, a large pit at the edge of the Cemetery of Playa Ancha in which unclaimed bodies were deposited without identification. Later, the gate leading to this common grave was walled up. Later still some construction work took place on the site, allegedly as part of a project (never completed) to build a new road. Many bodies were disinterred and pushed over the neighbouring cliffs into the Pacific Ocean and some were destroyed with acid by the Carabineros.

For several years one of Michael´s sisters tried, latterly with the help of the British Government, to persuade the Chilean Government to take legal action on Michael´s murder, on the basis of the information which she had presented to them and the report of the 1991 Commission on Truth and Reconciliation (Rettig Commission). This Commission, created by the first post-Pinochet government had concluded that Michael had died as the result of torture and that torture was carried out on the Esmeralda by “agents of the State”. The Government refused to take any action despite their obligation to do so under the terms of Article 84 of the Codigo de Procedimiento Penal.

Since then the conclusions of the Rettig Commission regarding Michael´´s death and the torture of the many other prisoners held on the Esmeralda have been denied by successive Commanders in Chief of the Navy. Over the same period the successive Heads of Government have not seen fit to require that the Commanders in Chief retract their declarations, made about the conclusions of a Commission which was created by the Chilean Government itself. On the contrary, successive Presidents . most recently Ricardo Lagos in April 2003, have bid farewell to the Esmeralda on its training cruises with praise for the Navy, the “White Lady” herself and the values which she represents

Ultimately, in January 2002, Michael´s sister – with the help of Chilean friends - was able to bring criminal charges against Pinochet, senior Naval officers, and crew members of the Esmeralda. They included genocide (for religious reasons), torture, assassination, state terrorism, kidnapping, illegal inhumation and exhumation and offences against the Geneva Convention and other international treaties. The investigation was assigned to a judge who has confessed that she has virtually no time for the case and the Supreme Court, when asked to resolve this problem, responded by increasing the case load of the judge. Moreover, as regards information held on the Rettig Commission files which could be subpœnaed by the court, evidence has come to light which makes clear that the Programa de Derechos Humanos (the Chilean Government´s human rights agency) has misled the lawyer who presented the charges.

All the crimes perpetrated on board the Esmeralda remain in the most complete impunity.


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