Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Indigenous Group Starving for Rights

Stefania Bianchi

LONDON, May 10 2006 (IPS) - Campaigners are growing increasingly concerned about the plight of four political prisoners on hunger strike over human rights violations within the Mapuche community in Chile.

“Their health is now in serious decline – they are experiencing considerable weight loss, their basic bodily functions are beginning to fail, they are currently falling in and out of consciousness and are periodically unable to speak,” Reynaldo Mariqueo from Mapuche International Link, an international organisation based in Bristol in Britain told IPS.

The prisoners, Patricia Troncoso, Juan Huenulao, Patricio Marileo and Jaime Marileo have been held in prison since 2001.

The woman and three men are charged with starting a fire in December 2001 that burned 100 hectares of pine plantations belonging to the Forestal Mininco company on the Poluco Pidenco estate in Ercilla, southern Chile. The four, together with seven others, were protesting the occupation of their ancestral land by the multinational forestry company.

The court sentenced them under a special anti-terrorism law. The four were sentenced to 10 years each in prison, and ordered to pay the company more than 800,000 dollars in compensation.

The Mapuche are an indigenous people whose ancestral territory spans the southern cone of Latin America across Argentina and Chile. According to the 2002 census, of the Chilean population of 15.6 million almost 700,000 belong to indigenous groups, mostly Mapuche.

Mapuche people say they are suffering the consequences of social and political repression, and the imposition of assimilation policies.

The existence of the Mapuche people is not recognised by the Chilean constitution, nor does Chile subscribe to international agreements to promote and protect human rights and the rights of indigenous people.

This means that neither the legal nor the educational systems are obliged to make a distinction between the Mapuche and the Chileans. As a result, Mapuche suffer from poor housing, malnutrition, illiteracy, alcoholism, tuberculosis and a high rate of infant mortality.

The Bristol-based Mapuche campaigners are now demanding a new trial for the four prisoners.

“The application of anti-terrorist law against Mapuche activists who protest for the protection of their traditional ancestral lands and in defence of their environment is utilised as a strategy to intimidate, control and repress their legitimate right to democratic protest,” said Mariqueo.

“Furthermore the application of this law expresses a bias towards the government-affiliated transnational corporations who seek to exploit the resources contained in the ancestral land of these communities.”

The case of the four political prisoners symbolises the struggle of the Mapuche people, Mariqueo said.

“If this were an isolated case it would be bad enough, but the Mapuche have for decades now been casualties of social and legal discrimination. Other dissenters too have been deemed terrorists and felt the full force of the law, suggesting that the political needs of the Mapuche nation are themselves criminalised.”

In a bid to highlight the urgency of the situation of the four hunger strikers, Mapuche International Link organised a series of protests in European cities last week. While the main aim of the protests was freedom for the prisoners on hunger strike, the group is also seeking to raise awareness of the situation of the Mapuche people.

Members from Mapuche International Link met members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in Brussels last week to press for a resolution against the Chilean state over human rights violations against the Mapuche people.

“The resolution is being supported by the Green Party and others in the hope that it will be adopted as a matter of urgency, with great emphasis on preserving the life of the four hunger strikers. In adopting this resolution the European Parliament will simultaneously support the universal standard for human rights within the Chilean state,” said Mariqueo.

The group has sent an appeal to Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. They say she should be sympathetic because as a socialist she suffered political persecution under the former Chilean dictatorship.

But there has been no response. “To date our letter has not been acknowledged, and the peaceful demonstration in Chile has been violently repressed, which has resulted in further injury and detention of many more Mapuche people,” said Mariqueo. “The only official response came last week when the government issued a statement saying that they will no longer apply the anti-terrorist law in such cases against Mapuche.”

The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO), an international organisation of indigenous people, is supporting the demands of the Mapuche political prisoners on hunger strike.

It has also appealed to Bachelet to urge “the review of the political judgment issued by the Chilean courts of justice, to drop all illegal and arbitrary charges against Mapuche members and to ensure the immediate release of the Mapuche political prisoners.”

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