- Development & Aid
- Economy & Trade
- Human Rights
- Global Governance
- Civil Society
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
- Leaders of the Mapuche ethnic group in southern Chile tried under an anti-terrorism law accuse the courts of failing to guarantee them fair trials, and international and local human rights groups have called for an investigation into alleged irregularities.
Leaders of the Mapuche ethnic group in southern Chile tried under an anti-terrorism law accuse the courts of failing to guarantee them fair trials, and international and local human rights groups have called for an investigation into alleged irregularities.
On Sep. 4 a new trial opens for 16 Mapuche activists from the Arauco Malleco Coordinating Group, who are involved in a struggle to recover the ethnic community’s ancestral lands in the southern region of Araucanía, around 700 km south of Santiago, where logging companies have planted tree farms to export wood to the United States, Japan and the European Union. The activists are facing charges of “terrorist association”.
But the Mapuches and human rights groups complain that paid witnesses, who testify in court behind screens, have been used in past trials. They also protest police failure to investigate reports of threats and intimidation against Mapuche Indians, as well as privileged treatment granted to influential individuals and companies.
On Aug. 23, four Mapuche leaders and one non-Indian supporter were sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of “terrorist arson”, after they were found responsible for setting fire to a pine plantation on the Poluco-Pidenco estate, which belongs to the Mininco logging company, in December 2001.
Six other indigenous activists charged in the case are at large.
In a clandestine interview with the newspaper El Mercurio, Figueroa said the prosecutors paid 10 witnesses from several local communities to incriminate her along with other Mapuche Indians facing prosecution in the case, and said she would only turn herself in if the state guarantees her a fair trial.
After the Aug. 23 sentences were announced, the France-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture protested alleged irregularities committed during the trial.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch also criticised Chile’s centre-left government, stating that “By using the harshest possible legal regime against the Mapuches, the Chilean government is unfairly lumping them together with those responsible for the worst crimes, like mass murder.”
The activists were sentenced under a counter-terrorism statute that dates back to the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
The trial scheduled to open on Saturday will be the longest oral trial held in Chile since penal reforms were introduced four years ago to make legal proceedings more transparent.
One of the most heavily criticised aspects of the trials against the Mapuche activists is the use of “faceless witnesses”. Of the 250 people who have testified so far, the identity of 44 has been protected, even from the defence attorneys. The witnesses testify behind screens, with voice distortion.
Sergio Laurenti, director of Amnesty International-Chile, criticised that practice, and told IPS that several steps must be taken to ensure due process for the Mapuche defendants.
For example, they should be able to testify in their mother tongue, Mapudungun, but “there have not been significant advances” in that direction, he said.
He also called for a re-interpretation of laws that fail to take into account key cultural aspects of indigenous communities, such as the significance of the Mapuches’ ties to their ancestral land.
“To revise the justice system, in terms of aspects that directly affect this ethnic group, there must be a dialogue between cultures,” said Laurenti.
That was also the conclusion of the report issued last year by the Commission for Historical Truth and New Treatment of Indigenous Peoples.
The Commission was created in 2001 by the current administration of moderate socialist President Ricardo Lagos to study relations between indigenous groups and the state.
If any irregularities have occurred in the trials, “it is an obligation of the Chilean justice system to investigate them,” Ena Von Baer, a researcher with the Freedom and Development Institute, which has ties to the right-wing opposition coalition, told IPS.
She added that the only way to resolve the land disputes in which Mapuche activists are involved is through the courts, “not via the route of violence.”
According to Von Baer, the only thing that the attacks by indigenous activists against property on estates and tree farms in Araucanía have achieved is that public opinion now identifies the Mapuches as “terrorists”.
She said the sometimes violent tactics used by some of the activists have not helped society understand the dire poverty in which the indigenous people are living.
“Most of them only want opportunities for the development and preservation of their culture,” said the researcher.
The Corporación de la Madera, the forestry industry association, has called on the authorities to take a strong-arm approach to squelch what it calls “Mapuche terrorist tactics.”
The association’s directors declined requests by IPS for comments on the recent trials.
Academic studies report a kind of “demonisation” by the local press of Mapuche demands and actions aimed at recovering their land. According to that research, the media present the landowners and logging businesses as victims while failing to report on cases of violence and abuses against indigenous people.
The London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International has expressed “profound concern” over the persecution of Mapuche leader Juana Calfunao Paillalef, the founder of the non-governmental Ethical Commission Against Torture, who has denounced a campaign of intimidation against her family.
Amnesty reports that “There has been a longstanding disagreement between the community and landowners over demarcation and fencing of the community’s land. Landowners are reported to have intimidated members of the community repeatedly, in attempts to force them to abandon their land. The authorities have reportedly not acted to protect the community against this harassment.”
On Jun. 26, Calfunao’s home was destroyed in a fire, and the family found the burnt body of her uncle, Basilio Cañoenao, among the charred ruins.
But according to witnesses, he was not staying in the house at the time the fire began. Local residents believe he was killed elsewhere and his body left in the house, which they say was the target of an arson attack.
A few days before the fire, cars from outside the community had been seen near the house at night, according to testimony gathered by Amnesty.
Amnesty’s Aug. 12 plea for urgent action states that Calfunao and her family were threatened and intimidated on four different occasions in the month of July.
“Stones were thrown against their makeshift tin house and shots were fired in the air outside. They have reported this to the Carabineros (national police)…The authorities are not known to have ordered any investigation, or taken any measures to provide protection for the family.”
The Amnesty statement adds that in May 2000, Calfunao was imprisoned for three days after a man attacked her in the street in the city of Temuco, and “In custody she was beaten by Carabineros causing her to suffer a miscarriage.”
The case involving Calfunao’s beating is in the hands of a local military prosecutor’s office, and Amnesty demands that it be transferred to a civilian court to guarantee due process.
According to the 2002 census, which is based on self-declaration of ethnic origin, Mapuche Indians account for 15.5 percent of the population of Araucanía, three percent of the population of Santiago, four percent of the national population, and 87 percent of the country’s Indians.
But the census results contrast with studies based on historical and anthropological factors and “patronymic” records (names), which conclude that indigenous people account for eight percent of Chile’s population of 16 million.