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CHILE: Closed Door for Prisoners Galvanises Mapuche Mobilisation

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Sep 8 2006 (IPS) - The Mapuche people are once again preparing to mobilise within Chile and abroad to rally support for three imprisoned community members and one activist, following Senate rejection of a long-awaited measure that would have secured their conditional release.

International awareness of the case grew when Juan Huenulao, Patricia Troncoso and brothers Patricio and Jaime Marileo, imprisoned since 2001 in Temuco, the capital of the southern region of Araucanía, went on a 67-day hunger strike between March and May of this year. The indigenous prisoners have since been moved to another facility in the region.

“The Chilean government bears sole responsibility for the consequences of these mobilisations,” said Domingo Marileo, a member of the political committee fighting for the life and freedom of the Mapuche political prisoners. He told IPS he would not be surprised if the four hunger strikers resumed their radical protest following the failure of the legal bid that would have allowed them to leave prison

The prisoners, who maintain their innocence, were fasting to protest the legal verdict under which they were convicted of terrorist arson, sentenced to 10 years plus a day behind bars and ordered to pay more than 800,000 dollars in compensation.

The fire in December of 2001 burned 100 hectares of pine plantations belonging to the Forestal Mininco company in Ercilla, near Temuco.

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) and amended during the transition to democracy.

A national and international campaign lobbying for the prisoner’s freedom, in which Portuguese Nobel Literature Prize-winner José Saramago urged Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to find a solution, elicited a government promise to put top priority on a bill that would have set the prisoners free.

But on Wednesday, after several delays, the Senate voted 20 to 13, with two abstentions, against the bill submitted by Senators Alejandro Navarro and Juan Pablo Letelier of the Socialist Party (PS) and Guido Girardi of the Party for Democracy (PPD). (Both parties belong to the centre-left governing coalition).

Every senator in the rightwing opposition alliance, which comprises the National Renovation (RN) and Independent Democratic Union (UDI) parties, voted against the bill. They were joined by three senators from the co-governing Christian Democratic Party (PDC). Only members of the ruling coalition supported the bill, and two PDC senators abstained.

“This was the chronicle of a death foretold,” Richard Caifal, of the Temuco-based Observatory of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, told IPS. He said the bill presented by senators Navarro, Girardi and Letelier was poorly drafted and would surely have been struck down by the Constitutional Court if passed.

Caifal explained that after making no headway in four months of negotiations, the Mapuche people are extremely disappointed with the government, which had promised to find a way to allow the indigenous prisoners to be released. It was on the basis of this pledge that the four imprisoned activists agreed to end the hunger strike that brought them near death.

After the parliamentary session, Senator Navarro stated that the bill had been an attempt to “rectify” a serious political error that inappropriately applied the anti-terrorism law to this case, “because it has been clearly established, even by the Chilean courts, that there was no illegal association or terrorist act involved in the case of the Mapuche activists.”

The legislator predicted that the misjudgement of the former Lagos administration “will cause major international repercussions for the country and, unfortunately, will likely lead to social demonstrations, because it is a door slammed in the face of those working towards peace in Araucanía.”

Furthermore, PDC Senator Jorge Pizarro, who abstained in Wednesday’s vote, criticised the absence of Justice Minister Isidro Solís from the Senate debate, observing that “the government had said it would make a number of suggestions to improve the bill” but never did.

“I abstained because there was a distinct lack of coordination and government presence and no decisive action by the Justice Ministry despite the sensitivity of the case,” explained Pizarro.

Caifal emphasised the government’s mishandling of the case and lack of political will. “After initially agreeing to make Senator Navarro’s bill an urgent priority, the executive branch decided that the initiative contained a number of weaknesses that would cause it to be struck down by the Constitutional Court, so it opted instead to amend the anti-terrorism law,” he said.

But only weeks later, the government changed its mind again and announced that this second alternative was not viable either, said Caifal, who is also spokesman for the Wenteche Land Alliance. Thus, the Bachelet administration revived Navarro’s flawed bill.

“The political committee for the life and freedom of the Mapuche political prisoners, which I provided with legal advice, submitted several recommendations for improvements to the two bills, but they were ignored,” said Caifal.

According to him, this is the result of a campaign against the indigenous movement, launched by the rightwing opposition and supported by PDC lawmakers.

Sergio Laurenti, director of the Chilean chapter of Amnesty International, told IPS he was very disappointed that the Mapuche prisoner situation has not been resolved, and highlighted the underlying problem of the “unconstitutional and irregular” application of the anti-terrorism law.

“I’m worried that the opposition is trying to force the government to take other, more convenient measures such as a pardon, which we do not support or recommend,” said Laurenti, who warned that the government must act quickly to avoid the real possibility of escalating violence.

Land disputes form the backdrop to many of the conflicts with Mapuche communities.

“This country has no indigenous policy. The government is groping around in the dark,” said Caifal, mentioning the dire situation in the town of Temucuicui, in the region of Araucanía, where Mapuche communities report frequent violent raids from the Carabineros militarised police.

On Aug. 27 a 71-year-old Mapuche farmer was shot and killed and his two sons wounded in Nueva Imperial, also in Araucanía, when the family refused to allow Carabineros police to enter their property, allegedly to search for stolen livestock.

Marileo said it is time the Mapuche people had their own political voice, as they no longer trust the centre-left coalition that has ruled the country for 16 years. “We need to establish a democratic alternative to this system, which does not value peoples’ lives,” said the indigenous leader.

To this end, he said Mapuche communities and organisations will work to create a broad platform for change by joining forces with sectors, many of which are already mobilised to fight exclusion and discrimination from the system, such as high-school students, teachers and healthcare unions.

According to the 2002 census, some 700,000 people – 4.6 percent of the Chilean population – belong to indigenous groups; of these minorities, 87.3 percent identify as Mapuche.

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