Chile: Mapuche Prisoners on Hunger Strike to Demand Talks

The families of 32 Mapuche prisoners on a hunger strike for a month in different prisons in southern Chile have come to the capital to denounce irregularities in their trials and push for dialogue with the authorities.

(IPS) – The families of 32 Mapuche prisoners on a hunger strike for a month in different prisons in southern Chile have come to the capital to denounce irregularities in their trials and push for dialogue with the authorities.

The hunger strike is a product of “the desperation of the Mapuche community members, who see all of the doors closing and that there is no political will to engage in talks and recognise the existence of a conflict” over land, Fernando Lira, the head of Liberar, a non-governmental organisation that is providing the prisoners with legal aid, told IPS.

Twenty self-declared Mapuche political prisoners started fasting on Jul. 12 and have now been joined by 12 others. The 32 hunger strikers, who are scattered in five different prisons in the south, have lost between seven and 12 kilos, and are suffering nausea, dizziness, disorientation, low blood pressure and cramps.

“They are going all the way with this, to the last consequences,” María Tralcal, a spokeswoman for the fasters, told IPS.

Tralcal forms part of a delegation that came to Santiago Wednesday to protest the situation of the imprisoned Mapuche activists, who are accused of crimes like terrorist arson, attempted homicide, bodily injury, threats and illicit association.

The delegation met Wednesday with legislators in Congress, which is located in the city of Valparaíso, 120 km west of Santiago, and on Thursday they were received by Supreme Court chief justice Milton Juica.

They also plan to meet with representatives of the Catholic Church and social organisations.

According to Tralcal, the fasters have learned from previous hunger strikes held by Mapuche activists in recent years, including the 111-day fast by Patricia Troncoso in 2007 and 2008.

Troncoso called off her strike after the government granted her prison benefits. However, she and her fellow fasters failed to achieve their demands of the release of some 20 Mapuche activists, the easing of military pressure on indigenous communities that are fighting for their traditional lands, a review of an arson case involving the Forestal Mininco logging company, and the modification of the controversial counter-terrorism law under which they had been tried.

Imprisoned since 2002, Troncoso and several Mapuche activists were sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of terrorist arson and ordered to pay a fine of 840,000 dollars to the Forestal Mininco company, near Temuco in southern Chile, owned by one of the country’s wealthiest families.

In December 2001 a fire burned 100 hectares of pine plantations that officially belong to the logging company but are claimed by the indigenous people as part of their ancestral territory.

When the activists were tried, the Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) administration invoked a controversial anti-terrorism law dating back to the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). The law allowed some 100 witnesses to conceal their identity while testifying.

The Mapuche community’s ancestral territory spans the southern tip of South America across Argentina and Chile. The Mapuche — who make up 87 percent of indigenous people in Chile — number around one million in this country of 16 million.

The Mapuche lost most of their territory in the late 19th century. Later, under the Pinochet regime, forestry companies and other firms interested in operating in undeveloped parts of the country were offered incentives like land and subsidies. As a result, indigenous communities, who generally have no formal title to their ancestral property, continued to be forced off their land.

Liberar’s Lira told IPS that there are 58 Mapuche political prisoners in jail in connection with the struggle for the ethnic group’s ancestral land.

The Mapuche complained that the indigenous policies of the centre-left Coalition of Parties for Democracy, which governed the country from the return to democracy in 1990 to March this year, fell short, even though more than 600,000 hectares of land have been returned to indigenous communities by the different administrations in power since 1990.

Occupations of privately-owned land by Mapuche activists were clamped down on harshly by the government of Michelle Bachelet (2006-March 2010). Two young protesters were even shot by the police in the crackdowns: 22-year-old Matías Catrileo in 2008 and 24-year-old Jaime Mendoza in 2009.

The military justice system, which is handling the two cases, has not yet handed down any sentence.

Thursday marked the anniversary of Mendoza’s death, which was commemorated by his family with different activities.

The hunger strikers are demanding an end to the use of the Pinochet era anti-terrorism law in their cases.

The activists say they are denied a fair trial under the law, which not only makes it possible for witnesses to conceal their identity, but allows secret judicial investigations, longer periods of arrest on remand, and heavy sentences. There are also allegations that unidentified witnesses have been paid to testify against the Mapuche defendants.

Another of the hunger strikers’ demands is an end to the practice by which some Mapuche activists are tried in the same case by both the civil and military courts when members of the armed forces are involved, and the resultant sentences are served consecutively — a “legal aberration” that only occurs in Chile, Lira said.

The anti-terrorism law has been criticised by organisations like Amnesty International and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH), and by the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights, through its rapporteur on indigenous issues, Rodolfo Stavenhagen.

“Internationally, it is attacks on human beings that are considered to be terrorism. But so far, not a single civilian or police officer has died at Mapuche hands; the only people who have been killed have been Mapuche brothers at the hands of the police,” Tralcal complained.

“The only thing that has happened here are attacks on private property, which should be dealt with under civil law. Our brothers and sisters only want a fair trial,” she said.

The imprisoned indigenous activists complain that they have been framed by the police and prosecutors, and that they have been mistreated and abused in prison.

Lira said one possible route to solving the conflict would be the creation of a negotiating panel made up of representatives of all concerned parties.

But the government of rightwing President Sebastián Piñera, who took office on Mar. 11, has not yet pronounced itself on the issue.

Indigenous and human rights activists accuse the government of double standards for denying the existence of a conflict with the Mapuche people while giving political asylum early this month to Cuban dissident José Izquierdo and criticising Cuba for holding “prisoners of conscience.”

Lira also said attempts to link Mapuche activists with Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, based on a report sent by the Colombian attorney general’s office to the office of the public prosecutor in Chile, “went too far.”

The regional prosecutor in the southern Chilean region of Araucanía, Francisco Ljubetic, said his office was studying the possibility of citing former Colombian guerrillas and police to testify against some of the Mapuche defendants.

“The Mapuche don’t kidnap or kill anyone,” said Lira, who argued that “they’re going far enough using unidentified protected witnesses; and now on top of it they want to import witnesses from Colombia, who we know are demobilised members of the military working for the Colombian prosecutors.”

The Mapuche are also protesting what they call a news blackout on the hunger strike and biased coverage of the conflict by the mainstream media.

International organisations that back the Mapuche cause reported on demonstrations in solidarity with the hunger strikers this week in Belgium, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland.