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Migration & Refugees

Chile Deports Non-Violent Foreign Prisoners

SANTIAGO, Oct 23 2012 (IPS) - Chile is releasing and deporting foreign inmates, mainly in prison on drug trafficking charges, as part of a broader attempt at improving conditions in this country’s overcrowded prisons.

The law introduced by the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera and passed unanimously by Congress in August pardons prisoners from other countries convicted of non-violent offences, as part of Chile’s new prison policy.

In this South American country of 16.5 million people, there are a total of 100,000 inmates, including prisoners who are on work release and spend only nights or weekends in jail.

According to statistics from the Gendarmería, the security force that guards Chile’s 103 prisons, as of Sept. 30 there were 48,658 full-time inmates held in facilities with a total combined capacity of 33,822.

The large majority of Chile’s prisons are state-run. Only six were granted in concession to private companies to build and administer, although the Gendarmería is still in charge of security.

The new prison policy began to be drafted in the wake of the Dec. 8, 2010 fire in the San Miguel prison in Santiago, where 81 of the 1,875 prisoners held in the facility built for 632 perished.

There are currently 1,700 foreign inmates in Chile. Of that total, 1,117 – of 28 different nationalities – have applied for the pardon, and 740 have been granted it so far.

The process began in August with the repatriation of 256 convicts from Peru.

“This is an expression of the close cooperation between the governments of Peru and Chile in different areas, and it is also a reflection of our strong bilateral ties,” Peru’s ambassador in Santiago, Carlos Pareja, said at the time, adding that his country was “completely satisfied with the results.”

The next group comprised 322 men and 106 women from Bolivia, who were taken to the border from three different prisons in 14 buses on the same day.

The third group was made up of 22 prisoners from Argentina – including one woman and her two-year-old son – who were taken across the Los Libertadores border crossing.

“There are more than 40 prisoners waiting to receive the pardon at this point, including Germans, Brazilians, Colombians, Spanish, Filipinos, Israelis, Italians, Paraguayans, South Africans and Venezuelans,” said David Huina, head of the Interior Ministry’s investigations division.

“To obtain the pardon, prisoners must fulfil a series of requisites. They must not have committed serious crimes like human rights violations, homicide…or sexual crimes against minors,” Huina told IPS.

He added that the beneficiaries must also have good conduct, and must have served out a certain portion of their sentence, depending on the severity of the offence.

After they are deported, the prisoners are banned from returning to Chile for 10 years.

Once they return to their home countries they are given a new national identity document and are released.

However, those who face charges in their home countries will be tried there and imprisoned if convicted.

Huina said that a list was presented to each consulate with the names of those who were pardoned, to coordinate.

“Each country checked the prisoners’ records, and those who were facing arrest warrants were sent in a separate group. Once in their home countries, they were sent to the appropriate authorities,” Huina said.

The official said the legislation was “a national law that grants a humanitarian benefit.” Thus, the pardon is not linked to any bilateral treaties.

According to the Justice Ministry, more than 95 percent of the foreigners released and deported under the new law were arrested for smuggling drugs into Chile. They had served one-third, half or three-fourths of their sentence, depending on the severity of their crime.

The law has not been criticised for its objective, which is to improve the inhumane conditions in Chile’s prisons. However, some observers are worried about the conditions in which the pardon is granted, and about the implications in terms of migration policy.

“When someone commits a crime, they pay for it by going to prison,” said Carolina Stefoni, a sociologist who is an expert on migration and transnationalism at the Alberto Hurtado University.

“But if on top of that they force you not to return to the country, or if the return can only be achieved by facing extremely severe consequences,” it adds another layer of punishment, she told IPS.

This is compounded by “the government’s plan to keep people with criminal records out of the country, which to me is discriminatory,” she added.

Justice Minister Teodoro Ribera stated that “in the case of foreigners who are in the country illegally and have committed crimes in Chile, it is clear that they are going to be expelled once they serve out their sentences.”

In Stefoni’s view, underlying these measures is a deeply-rooted cultural problem that is reflected in the shortcomings of the country’s migration policy.

“The current migration law is not founded on human rights principles, and that gives rise to discrimination,” she said.

“In cultural terms, Chileans have a lot to learn; we have a long way to go to understand that the country maintains and reproduces a number of social diversities, not only involving migration but other kinds as well, and that this diversity enriches the country.”

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