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Chilean ex-navy officers found guilty of murdering priest

Four decades after British Roman Catholic priest Michael Woodward was arrested, tortured and murdered by Chilean navy personnel during a coup led by notorious dictator general Augusto Pinochet, two of his killers have at last been found guilty by a local court.

But while the sentence provides final recognition that he was kidnapped and taken to the four-masted navy training ship Esmeralda to be tortured, it does not provide a solution to one of the most painful mysteries left over from his murder - the whereabouts of his clandestine grave, which Chile's armed forces have done nothing to find.

The three-year sentences handed down to non-commissioned officers Jose Manuel Garcia Reyes and Hector Palomino Lopez fell far short of the aims of a tireless campaign by his sister Patricia Bennetts.

"The truth about what happened to Michael has been revealed," his sister said in a statement on Thursday. "We regret that Michael's body, hidden by the Chilean Navy, has still not been found."

The original court investigation involved 33 navy personnel, including four vice-admirals, but only seven were eventually brought to trial.

Threats of violence by supporters of Pinochet were part of a concentrated attempt to intimidate his septuagenarian sister and those who backed her quiet but tenacious campaign for justice.

On one occasion protesters tried to kick her when she arrived at court. On another, prosecutor Karina Fernandez had her house broken into and her laptop stolen, while the thieves deliberately left her jewellery and money on her bed. Investigating magistrate Eliana Quezada received regular death threats.

Those involved were charged with kidnapping rather than murder, in order to get around the country's amnesty laws that cover crimes previous to 1978. Kidnapping is considered a continuous crime that is still being committed today and so is not covered by the amnesty laws.

On Thursday Patricia Bennetts called for urgent legal reforms in Chile to allow for further investigation of the navy's role in the abuse of human rights both during and after the violent coup which ushered in 17 years of Pinochet dictatorship.

Woodward, a former public schoolboy who embraced liberation theology, was one of thousands of victims of a military coup that saw Pinochet's troops bomb the presidential palace and kill democratically elected leftwing president Salvador Allende.

Woodward was targeted by military personnel in the navy port city of Valparaiso because of his well-known leftwing sympathies.

When General Pinochet was detained in London for human rights crimes on a Spanish arrest warrant in 1998, the existence of British victims of his regime's brutality - including murdered stockbroker William Beausire and tortured doctor Sheila Cassidy - formed an important part of the legal debate. The law lords approved his extradition, but he was sent back to Chile by home secretary Jack Straw on health grounds.

Evidence that Pinochet amassed a huge fortune in the Riggs Bank in the US tarnished his reputation before his 2006 death, but court cases against his thugs have proceeded slowly and with varied results.

[Source: By Giles Tremlett, The Guardian, 09May13]

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small logoThis document has been published on 14May13 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.