Five Chilean officers indicted for killing of British priest in 1973

After 35 years, the families of victims of Pinochet-era abuses have taken one step closer to finding justice
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Five high-ranking retired navy officers were accused today of abducting, torturing and killing a British priest and other dissidents on floating detention centres in the days following Chile's 1973 military coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power.

Fr Michael Woodward, who held British and Chilean citizenship, was seized by security forces in the port city of Valparaiso on 16 September 1973, five days after the coup. Fr Woodward, 42, was allegedly tortured with other detainees on at least two navy ships used as detention centres and died six days later.

He was buried in a mass grave, and his family was provided with a certificate saying he died of cardio-respiratory problems. But prosecutors believe he died from injuries sustained under torture.

Judge Eliana Quezada said she had indicted retired Admirals Sergio Barros, Guillermo Aldoney and Adolfo Walbaum and retired navy Captains Sergio Barra and Ricardo Riesgo for the kidnapping and torture of Fr Woodward and other members of left-wing groups.

The five men had been taken into custody in Valparaiso. Also charged was Carlos Costa, a navy doctor. Judge Quezada said the defendants maintained their innocence, but they could not be reached independently.

Fr Woodward was educated at Downside School in Somerset. At the time of his death, he had been suspended from the Catholic priesthood and joined the group Christians for Socialism, according to a report by a commission appointed by the first post-Pinochet civilian government to investigate the rights abuses during the 1973-90 dictatorship.

Fr Woodward's sister, Patricia, welcomed the indictments. "The case of my brother has taken a very important step ahead," she said. "I hope this means we are achieving truth and justice for Michael and other victims of the navy."

Three days ago, a former chief of Chile's secret police force was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the disappearance of a dissident during the dictatorship of the late General Pinochet. Retired General Manuel Contreras, 78, who commanded Pinochet's feared secret police, the Direccion de Intelligencia Nacional (Dina), was found guilty of the disappearance of Marcelo Salinas, who was last seen in a government detention centre a few weeks after his 1974 arrest. He is presumed dead.

Chile has pushed in recent years to prosecute human rights violations from the dictatorship of Pinochet, who died in 2006 at the age of 91. Contreras' was the 100th conviction stemming from abuses during the era, the court said.

Contreras is already behind bars for convictions in other cases, including the 1976 bombing that killed a prominent Pinochet critic, the former foreign minister Orlando Letelier, in Washington, DC. He has already accumulated prison terms totaling 57 years, and is fighting cases that could add another 197.

Judge Alejandro Solis also sentenced four other officers to prison on Thursday, including Contreras' deputy commander in the secret police and former General Pedro Espinoza.

State security forces killed about 3,200 people for political reasons and "disappeared" more than 1,000 others during the Pinochet era, according to an official report after civilian rule was restored in 1990.