Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Indigenous Hunger Strikers in Critical Condition

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Dec 7 2007 (IPS) - Four Mapuche community leaders and an activist are in critical condition on the 58th day of a hunger strike in the southern Chilean prison where they are serving time on charges of terrorism. Two of them had already fasted for more than two months in 2006.

The hunger strikers are José Huenchunao, Jaime Marileo, Héctor Llaitul, José Millalén and Patricia Troncoso. Troncoso is the only one who is not a direct descendant of the Mapuche, Chile’s main native group.

The five fasters, who are only drinking water and mate, a traditional herbal infusion, have lost between 16 and 22 kilos and are suffering frequent fainting spells, vision problems, kidney damage and circulatory problems.

They are in such critical condition that the Gendarmería (the prison guards) have sought legal permission to transfer them to the hospital at any time and put them on an IV drip, against their will.

In 2001, Marileo and Troncoso were sentenced to 10 years and a day in prison on charges of terrorist arson. They and the other hunger strikers were also ordered to pay a fine of 840,000 dollars to the Forestal Mininco company, near Temuco in southern Chile, where a December 2001 fire burned 100 hectares of pine plantations belonging to the logging company.

Huenchunao, founder of the radical indigenous organisation Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM), who was also convicted in connection with the case, was a fugitive from justice until last March.

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), which was amended during the transition to democracy.

The law, which allowed some 100 witnesses to conceal their identity while testifying, 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.

The trials of the indigenous activists drew fire from local and international human rights groups, which consider the sentences far out of proportion to their actions, and argue that protests by Mapuche people for the protection of their traditional ancestral lands and in defence of the environment are not acts of terrorism.

The activists, who are being held in the Angol prison in the southern Chilean region of Araucanía, have consistently denied any involvement in the fire.

Llaitul, who also belongs to the CAM, is in preventive detention while facing charges for several crimes, including the fire, and Millalén has been sentenced to four years and a day for breaking the “law on domestic security”.

The hunger strikers have issued several public statements expressing their demands, which include the immediate release of “all Mapuche political prisoners,” who number around 20, and “demilitarisation and an end to the repression of communities that have mobilised for their political and territorial rights.”

They are also calling for “an end to legal and political setups against Mapuche leaders.”

Between March and May 2006, Marileo, Troncoso and two other activists fasted for 67 days in a row. They ended that strike due to hopes of approval of a draft law introduced by ruling coalition legislators that could have led to their release by amending the parole law.

The draft law, which was voted down in the end, emerged after a national and international campaign on behalf of the prisoners.

“I have sent three or four letters to President Michelle Bachelet,” Patricia’s father Roberto Troncoso told IPS. “I just received a response saying that she can’t meet with me because of her busy schedule.”

“The government has not taken a stance on this. We are asking for a negotiating table to be set up, but we just don’t know what to do to get their attention,” said a desperate Troncoso, whose daughter is a 37-year-old child care worker committed to the Mapuche cause.

“If they had been tried and jailed correctly, everything would be in order. But the trials were flawed, with fake, hooded witnesses who were paid to testify,” he said.

Because of the indifference shown by government officials, six relatives and friends of the prisoners launched a hunger strike of their own on Nov. 21.

In a public communiqué, the Observatory of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, based in Temuco, called on the authorities Wednesday to respond to the demands of the Mapuche prisoners.

The statement says “We are of the conviction that their sentences are unjust and that their imprisonment is the drastic consequence of a policy of criminalisation of indigenous social protest, followed by the governments of the Coalition for Democracy” which has governed the country since 1990.

Over the past few months, demonstrations have been held in Temuco, Santiago and other Chilean cities demanding a solution to the problem.

Retired judge Juan Guzmán, the first magistrate to prosecute Pinochet in Chile, is one of the few prominent figures to have taken a public stance in favour of the hunger strikers.

In an earlier statement, the judge said “The Mapuche movement, which has employed all peaceful means to recuperate the land taken from them in Chile’s southern region, is once again the target of harsh political repression.”

Since last year, a group of human rights lawyers have been working on legislative or administrative solutions for the case. One of them is Alberto Espinoza, who visited the hunger strikers on Dec. 2.

Espinoza told IPS that he presented the case before the Chamber of Deputies human rights commission last week, to ask the legislators to sponsor a draft law that would reduce sentences for arson.

The draft law, signed by nine ruling coalition lawmakers, was submitted to parliament Tuesday.

With the same aim, Espinoza met with the minister secretary-general of the presidency (the official in charge of relations with parliament) José Antonio Viera-Gallo, who merely promised to “study the situation,” although according to the lawyer, he was “well-disposed” towards the cause.

Another alternative proposed by the group of human rights lawyers is the granting of prison privileges, like home visits on Sundays or a transfer to a prison farm.

Espinoza, a lawyer with the Social Aid Foundation of the Christian Churches, believes that such steps could help lift the spirits of the Mapuche prisoners and Troncoso and could prompt them to call off their hunger strike. He said it is difficult to guarantee, however, because there is no immediate solution to their demands.

The prisoners’ families also contacted human rights lawyer Humberto Lagos to ask him to set up a dialogue panel that would include representatives of the government and the Catholic Church, which has expressed concern over the case.

The talks should focus on the alleged irregularities that marred the trials, and on repressive measures taken against Mapuche activists defending their political and land rights, Lagos told IPS, adding that he hoped for news soon.

“Today I talked to my daughter and asked her once more to stop the hunger strike, but she doesn’t want to, and says she’s going to continue to the end,” said Troncoso.

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