February 28, 2007

The Commander and the White Lady

By an Anonymous Contributor
Special to Intelligentsiya,

“In January 1979, Bainimarama embarked on the Chilean naval training ship,
the Buque Escuela Esmeralda, which spent six months circumnavigating South America. On his return to Fiji in August, Bainimarama was appointed Executive Officer of HMFS Kiro.”

The passage from the Commander’s entry in the on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia, is unremarkable, unless one should click on the hyperlink “Buque Escuela Esmeralda” (pictured). Then it becomes interesting.

"That immediately after the military coup of September 11, 1973, the training ship, "Esmeralda" was utilized by the Chilean Navy as a center of detention and torture in Valparaíso harbor has been incontrovertibly demonstrated by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the OEA (report 24/Oct/74), Amnesty International (report AMR 22/32/80), the United States Senate (resolution 361-16/June/86), and the Report of the (Chilean) National Commission of Truth and Reconciliation (Third Part, Chapter I, Section 2 f.2.). The testimonies that the "Esmeralda" was effectively used as a floating chamber of torture are many and in mutual agreement."

Following the military coup on 11 September 1973, the military junta which seized power immediately embarked on a program of systematic and large-scale repression, exerting absolute control over the resources of the State, and using these to commit human rights violations. Constitutional guarantees were suspended through more than 3,500 decree laws and four "constitutional laws" passed over several years. Congress was dissolved, and a country-wide state of siege declared, under which hundreds of people were detained and countless more extrajudicially executed, a state policy of "disappearance" put in place, and torture was used systematically.

In October 1974 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published a report on a visit to Chile which had taken place between July 22 – August 2 of the same year, and less than a year after the events which it investigated. Members of the Commission had been able to visit a number of facilities and to speak to the inmates, male and female, some of them minors, and from all social classes and backgrounds.

In the course of interviews with prisoners, both in the capital city, Santiago and outside the capital, in the north and in the south, of Chile, the Commission noted that of the large number who stated that they had been subjected to torture, in some cases brutally with visible marks remaining, most of them asserted that the torture was not applied in the establishments where they were or had been detained, but in other places where in the course of interrogations, a wide range of physical and psychological torture was employed. The Commission lists five locations which “[w]ith significant unanimity, in widely-separated establishments” were places used for torture. The fifth in the list is “e) The Navy ship “Esmeralda”.” (A stark white sailing vessel).

Substance was given to those accounts by the fact that “that similar descriptions have been given of those places by prisoners widely separated from each other.” The possibility of collusion and fabrication could accordingly be excluded. Both men and women were tortured, in the case of women in the form of sexual abuse including repeated and multiple rape and humiliation. Although the Commission members had been promised identification cards which would have enabled them to carry out surprise visits, these were not forthcoming. In a number of cases there was evidence of the establishment having been ‘sanitized’ immediately prior to their arrival. Finally when members of the investigation tem expressed their intention to visit the five installations identified as places of torture, they were told that such a visit could not be made, because the installations had recently been declared “military areas”. As the Report noted:

"This refusal prevented completing a task of utmost importance, namely, comparing the descriptions, which agreed with each other, of the alleged torture rooms, with the various locations in the buildings mentioned."

From all of this it is clear that by the end of 1974, that is to say five years before the Commander’s arrival, if the dates in the Wikipedia are correct, the reputation of the “Esmeralda” as a place of torture was well established. The repressive Pinochet regime was to last for sixteen years until 1990. When the ship ceased to be a place of torture is unclear. According to the Wikipedia it continued until the regime collapsed. According to an Amnesty International Report it was not used for that purpose beyond 1973. The second date may be the more reliable.

However, as the second Report of the Commission, dated 28 June 1976 recorded, while there had been some quantitative reduction reflected in a reduction of complaints of human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, and other serious human rights abuses continued in substantial numbers throughout the period covered by the report.

By the time of the Third Report dated 11 February 1977, the non-cooperation of Chilean authorities rendered the task of the Commission virtually impossible. The Report noted that although the number of denunciations of homicides imputed to Chilean authorities through an abuse of power had declined, in the cases being processed in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Chilean Government, while not denying the events, contended that the action taken by the authorities had been justified. However the Government did not provide the evidence needed by the Commission to make a judgment identifying responsibility for those deaths, which the claimants impute to the Chilean authorities. The Commission continued to receive denunciations with regard to individuals detained, missing or presumed dead. These findings were confirmed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, (the “Rettig Commission”), set up after the fall of the dictator Pinochet. So much for the country as a whole. It is now time to turn to the specific issue of the “Esmeralda”.

The Amnesty International Report, ‘Torture And The Naval Training Ship The "Esmeralda"’, published in 2003, confirms that following the military coup on 11 September 1973, the military junta which seized power immediately embarked on a program of systematic and large-scale repression, exerting absolute control over the resources of the State, and using these to commit human rights violations. Constitutional guarantees were suspended through more than 3,500 decrees and four "constitutional laws" passed over several years. Congress was dissolved, and a country-wide state of siege declared, under which hundreds of people were detained, and countless more extrajudicially executed. A state policy of "disappearances" was put in place. Torture was used systematically.

With the return to civilian rule in 1990, two bodies were created at different periods to gather information establishing the truth about "disappearances", extrajudicial executions and deaths resulting from torture by State agents. The combined findings of the two Commissions officially documented 3,197 cases of victims of "disappearances", extrajudicial execution and death resulting from torture. This figure did not include the victims of torture who survived their ordeal. According to the Rettig Report, published in March 1991, aboard the "Esmeralda", a special group of Navy officials "installed a unit for the interrogation of detainees. Such interrogation included, as a general rule, ill-treatment and torture". Over the years, Amnesty International has documented and published the accounts of a number of victims tortured on the "Esmeralda". Torture techniques included the use of electric prods, high-voltage electric charges applied to the testicles, hanging by the feet and dumping head first in a bucket of water or excrement.

It is only recently that the Chilean Navy has admitted that detainees were in fact tortured. The Navy’s Admiral Miguel Ángel Vergara said in 2004 that the navy “profoundly regrets” the abuses. However, Vergara did not acknowledge, that the Navy as an institution was at fault, saying, “Those personal and ethical responsibilities are strictly personal.” However in May 2006, the Navy’s new leader, Admiral Rodolfo Codina Díaz, conceded in an interview with La Nación that it was not just a matter of personal responsibility on the part of those responsible, and that there were orders from direct supervisors. However, he continued to deny that the order came from highly ranked superior officers.

While there is no evidence that such conduct aboard the “Esmeralda” continued up until January 1979, it is likely that at least some of those involved were still serving on the “Esmeralda at the time of Bainimarama’s claimed arrival, and almost certain that most, if not all of them were still serving officers in the Chilean Navy. It is not plausible that, if he did not know of the reputation of the vessel before his arrival in Chile, a little short of his 25th birthday, he did not learn of it shortly thereafter. By the end of 1978 the status of the “Esmeralda as a centre of detention and torture, at least in the immediate past, was well established. While such abuses may no longer have been occurring aboard the vessel, they were certainly occurring ashore. The Rettig Commission found evidence of extra-judicial killings by government agencies, and “disappearances” occurring well beyond the period of Bainimarama’s stay in Chile. This gives rise to the obvious question: why was a young naval officer sent by Fiji for training in a Spanish-speaking country with a current and notoriously appalling human rights record? There is no obvious answer.

A feature of the present coup is the existence of physical and psychological abuse of those unlawfully taken into detention by the RFMF. Few have spoken of their ordeal. Most have not, presumably because of threats of similar treatment of family and associates. This was not a feature of the Rabuka coup in 1987, where there were unlawful detentions, but little if any serious mistreatment of detainees. There has never been any suggestion that Rabuka has been involved in physical mistreatment of any kind. Bainimarama, on the other hand, notwithstanding denials by militarily compliant police officers, remains a person of interest in the investigation of the killing of members of the CRW unit, some of whom had attempted to oust him from command, and possibly kill him in October 2000. There is evidence that he was present in person when at least one detainee was assaulted and humiliated. Far from acting to prevent such abuses by his subordinates, if he has not encouraged them, he has at least condoned them.

As a consequence of the making of a recent Canadian documentary, directed by a Chilean refugee from the excesses of the Pinochet regime, titled “The Dark Side of the White Lady”, and featuring interviews with survivors of torture aboard the “Esmeralda”, and relatives of those who did not survive, the vessel’s history and that of its officers is again a live issue in Chile. The events aboard in 1973 are also the subject of a judicial investigation. However, in an interview published in January this year one of the survivors, Professor Sergio Vuskovic Rojo, expresses his disappointment that the Catholic Church has not become more involved in the lawsuit, an omission which he finds particularly puzzling as one of its priests, Father Michael Woodward, was tortured to death aboard the “Esmeralda He concludes: I am not very optimistic about the issue of this lawsuit.” As with the events aboard her in Chile in 1973, in Fiji what the Commander knew, when he knew it, and what he learned from it when training in Valparaiso and aboard the White Lady. may remain yet another dark secret. However, recent events in Fiji, including criminal acts of detention, beating, and humiliation, appear to demonstrate that he learned something to pass on to his subordinates.


Anonymous said...

I had to read this article twice! I don't know how you did it but intelligentsiya, this is damn good work.
You are the ray of sunshine in these gloomy days. Keep them comming.

Liberty said...

This is a very, very interesting article..and it also makes me feel sick! Whatever on earth prompted our Goverment and higher authorities to send one of our young naval officers, and during the early formative years of his naval career, to be trained in Chile, given its notoriety for human rights abuses, torture and murder, plus he was trained on board a floating 'former' torture chamber! It makes me feel sick to link that and what has been happening since the 2000 mutiny, under Bainimarama's stewardship. I can't say anymore right now.

Anonymous said...

What funny English! The man can't even articulate himself well much less run a country.

Germán F. Westphal said...

Readers may want to visit the following site:


This site includes the information reported in the article and approximately 500 documents such as newspaper articles, testimonies, reports, photographs, etc.

Germán F. Westphal, Ph.D.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Dr. Westphal.

Readers may also want to google "Augusto Pinochet", "Thursdays in Black"

They will find alarming parallels in the CHile and FIji situations.

Pinochet = Bainimarama

Anonymous said...

Certainly alarming, Level 5 alarming. And to think that the same person that was on that boat is now leading a country let alone a Military force. This information should be leaked to the Fiji media ... oh my bad, forgot he is the Minister of Information as well right! sigh sigh

Semi Meo said...

I would think that the " alarming parallels" between Com.Bainimarama and the late Chilean leader is way too harsh!!
The two leaders at least have a face and a name..not ..."Anonymous" the purpoted author of the "alarming" comparison.

Anonymous said...

Semi Meo - Vore and Pinochet are the same - people have to be anonymous to be able to speak their mind. What is so alarming about the comparison. The people are hiding and the day will come when the voices cannot be suppressed any more.

Semi Meo said...

It would be ideal to at least base our views and assumptions based on facts. In this case, facts of History. I pray that our emotions are not allowed to rule our sense of fairness and Fijianness. I still maintain that to compare the present Rt. Hon. Interim Prime Minister of Fiji, a Fijian father, grandfather and fellow Rugby player with the former Chilean leader is not only alarming but down right absurd and UNFIJIAN!! Come on lets be constructive with our contribution in this site and other sites. Lets agree to be for ever Fijians and be proud and act, talk and write like one.