Complaint for Torture and Murder of Priest Miguel Woodward




The First Suit Against Pinochet for Religious Persecution

The Navy in the Coup


The First Suit Against Pinochet for Religious Persecution

Miguel Woodward Iriberri lived as a Christian intensely committed with the dispossessed. That same commitment made him a target for the military officers who arrested, tortured, and killed him in ten days after the military coup in Chile.

Such is the conviction sustained by the Woodward family and his lawyer Sergio Concha,(member of FASIC legal staff) who on January 30, 2002 filed the first criminal complaint for religious persecution against Augusto Pinochet and high-ranking Naval authorities before the Valparaiso Court of Appeals.

Arrested September 18, 1973 in his home on Cerro Placeres by a Navy patrol, Miguel Woodward was taken first to the cargo ship the Lebu and then to the Navy cadet ship Esmeralda. Witnesses confirm that he was brutally tortured and died in an ambulance en route to the Navy Hospital.

The criminal complaint filed with Judge Gabriela Corti, arises on initiative of the family, who hope it will lead to the first judicial investigation into the death of the young priest.

In 1991 a British author wrote a book that contributed new information, previously unknown to the family, including the fact that Miguel Woodward was buried in a mass grave in Playa Ancha Cemetery of Valparaiso. Nearly 20 years after his murder, the family had no idea where he was buried.

The clues provided by the journalist encouraged the family's search for the truth about what happened to Miguel. Miguel had dual British-Chilean citizenship and since the early 1990s communication with the British government has been more frequent. On several opportunities, the British government has asked for justice in this case. The response from the government of Chile has been that the families have to bring their complaint to the courts because the judicial branch is independent. In view of this reply, the family, which had previously demanded that the State of Chile investigate, decided to file the legal action.

The legal action names Augusto Pinochet and Navy commanders as responsible for the death of Miguel Woodward:

"Considering the hierarchical and vertical structure of the Chilean Armed Forces and the manner in which they prepared for the military coup of 1973, penal responsibility for the crimes committed against the victim lies first with the superior commanders who issued the orders, then with lower-ranking officers who carried out their orders, and lastly, with the operatives who executed the criminal funcions of interrogators, which always meant serving as torturers of the prisoners and often their executioners."

Founded upon Chilean law (the Constitution of 1980 and the Penal Code) as well as international law, the legal action is brought for the crimes of genocide for religious motives, State terrorism, first degree murder, aggravated abduction, torture, illegal interment and exhumation and illicit association.

Genocide has been a cause of action in many complaints filed against Pinochet but this is the first time it is specified for religious motives, deriving its legal grounds on the Geneva Conventions and the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (ONU, 1953). The complaint states:

"Following the bloody coup headed by Augusto Pinochet, among the many in the eye of the repressive forces were priests wer lived in working class neighborhoods, and participated in organizations and Christian base communties. Miguel was a focus of the repressiion, which deemed him an "extremist", even though his only model and teacher was the Christ of the poor. Miguel had the intransigient conviction that the misery and vulnerability of the poor, particularly of the people with hwom he lived in Valparaiso, was an injustice that clamored to the heavens and was rooted in greed, egoism, and the defense of priviledges of the rich. Miguel was a man of singular integrity who struggled to give witness with his life, until delivering that life in union with Christ, for his friends."

It is important to note that Miguel Woodward was ordained as diocesan priest in 1968 by Raul Silva Henriquez, then bishop of Valparaiso. He was a member of Christians for Socialism and of the MAPU political party, comprised of Christians who separated from the Christian Democrats in 1969. His neighborhood in Cerro Placeres named him president of the Junta de Abastecimiento (JAP), organized in 1972 when food staples became scarce, orchestrated by powerful economic sectors opposed to the Allende government. Miguel was a person well-known to the people of Cerro Placeres as well as the opponents of the Popular Unity government.

Lawyer Sergio Concha explains: "Miguel had problems with the new bishop of Valparaiso, Emilio Tagle. In August 1972 the bishop suspended him from the priesthood, with no explanation. Due to the suspension, he left the parish church and could not as celebrate mass, give communion, baptisms or officiate at marriages. Many people did not know why he stopped going to the parish."

Another crime charged for the first time in this legal action is the crime of State terrorism in connection with an illicit association. The text of the complaint states:

This illicit association unleashed a State terrorism in the country, that employed torture as an important foundation from which to implant mass fear in the population. It is believed that approximately 500,000 persons were tortured during the dictatorship. The numbers of persons subjected to torture in Valparaiso and all the Fifth Region cannot be easily calculated, since every person arrested was, at some point, subjected to torture. Figures that exist are only estimates and are imprecise. Government reports and human rights organizations estimate that in Region Five 88 persons were killed and 39 are disappeared. At least 4,000 prisoners passed through the "Lebu," 500 through the "Esmeralda." Another boat, the "Maipo" received at least 1000 prisoners. Three thousand people passed through the Valparaiso Stadium, another 2000 in concentration camps nearby such as Melinka, Ritoque and Punchuncavi. Some 4000 people were taken held prisoner in the War Academy and the Silva Palma regiment; around 2000 in different police stations, 1000 in investigation police commissions, more than 2000 were held in the Region's prisons and at least 2000 in secret detention centers of the DINA and the CNI.

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The Navy in the Coup

The Navy was ready from the day of the coup. The cadet ship Esmeralda and the freighter the Maipo served as prison ships on September 11, 1973. When the Maipo left with its cargo of prisoners for the Pisagua prison camp on September 15, the Lebu replaced it. Both the Lebu and the Esmeralda remained anchored in Valparaiso harbor and employed as prison ships until December 1973.

Training of Army officers, including future members of the DINA, at Panama's School of the Americas is common knowledge. Less known, however, is that naval officers also were trained in the United States, in 1973, and possibly earlier.

The support of the Navy was crucial for enlisting the other branches of the Armed Forces in the coup project. The Navy was traditionally the most conservative and the most avid supporter of uprisings. On September 10, 1973 the Navy cast anchor, supposedly to rendezvous with the United States fleet in UNITAS exercises. But the ships returned that night and in the dawn of September 11, took over the port and the city.

A group of Marines loyal to the Allende government informed the government that the Navy was making preparations for a coup. These Marines were all arrested before the coup and tortured in various Navy vessels. The government learned of their torture, but was already too debilitated to be able to react: it could do nothing to support the Marines nor did it take steps to avert the coup.

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