Remember 1973. Hold Torturers Accountable.

July 19, 2011

By Kalaya’an Mendoza, Field Organizer for Amnesty Western Region

On July 15th a group of activists from Amnesty International USA and Survivors of Torture International held a protest on board the Chilean vessel “La Esmeralda” as it docked in San Diego Harbor.

Activist Hannah Bogen in front of La Esmeralda in San Diego Harbor.

In 1973, after former Chilean General Augusto Pinochet seized power in a military coup, the ship served as an interrogation center for political prisoners. Survivors described torture that included beatings, electric shocks and sexual assault.

Currently, the Esmeralda is traveling around the Americas acting as a roving ambassador for Chile on a mission of “goodwill.” The crew invited happy families, wide-eyed tourists and, unbeknownst to them, a small group of human rights activists ready to unfurl signs on board that read: “Remember 1973. Hold Torturers Accountable.”

This protest follows the recent decision by a Chilean judge to drop charges against most of those implicated in the historic case of a priest believed to have died aboard the Esmeralda in 1973. Father Michael Woodward was arrested in September of that year, and taken to the Esmeralda, where he was interrogated and tortured. He was pronounced dead in a naval hospital six days after his arrest, but his body has never been recovered.

Twenty-nine former naval and police officials were initially indicted in the case. Last week, charges were dropped against nineteen of them. The remaining former low-ranking officials facing charges are now being prosecuted only for Father Woodward’s abduction, rather than for his torture and disappearance, which are crimes under international law. Guadalupe Marengo, Amnesty International’s Deputy For the Americas, sums it up:

“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.”

Amnesty activists boarded the ship on behalf of the survivors and victims of the torture that was committed beneath its decks over 30 years ago.  We wanted to remind the Chilean government of their responsibility to ensure that all those responsible for these heinous crimes, including those who gave the orders, are brought to justice.

No matter where “La Esmeralda” goes, we shall follow.