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Human Rights in Chile still under threat  

by Steph MO'F, September 2004

The history of human rights abuses in Chile during the Pinochet era is well documented. News that the ex-dictator has been stripped of his immunity from prosecution and can be called to account for his crimes has highlighted the ongoing efforts to heal the wounds from the past. Little mention has been made, however, of the fact that international human rights organisations continue to raise concerns about abuses taking place under the present democratic government.

One of the main targets for a series of violations are Mapuche communities living in the south of the country.  The Mapuche are the largest indigenous group in Chile and have a strong cultural identity bound up with their connection to the land. A long struggle to recover and maintain the rights to their ancestral land has brought them into conflict with private landowners and national and multinational companies. In particular, commercial forestry plantations and the construction of a large hydro-electric dam have caused huge disruption in the region.

The Chilean government has responded to the conflict by using repressive measures which have recently been criticised by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UN.

On 23 August Human Rights Watch issued a joint statement with the University of The Frontier's Institute of Indigenous Studies condemning the sentencing of four Mapuche Indians and a supporter on terrorism charges. They were imprisoned for ten years for "terrorist arson," after being found responsible for setting fire to a pine plantation belonging to the logging company Mininco. Ten years is the minimum sentence for terrorist arson, double the criminal code's ordinary penalty for arson.

In recent years Mapuche activists have been prosecuted under counter-terrorism legislation originally introduced by Pinochet. The law allows prosecutors to withhold evidence from the defence for up to six months, and to conceal the identity of witnesses, who may give evidence in court behind screens. In their press release, Human Rights Watch expressed concern that these provisions limit the ability of defendants to rebut the charges against them and describe the use of terrorism charges as a grossly exaggerated response to the unrest in southern Chile.

They also point out that so far the only victim of the land conflict is a 17-year-old Mapuche man, Alex Lemun, who was shot and killed by a police officer during a protest in November 2002. In contrast to the prosecution of the Mapuches, the officer responsible for the shooting has not faced criminal charges by the military tribunal investigating the case.

The use of military tribunals in cases of human rights violations carried out by members of the security forces is a matter of particular concern to Amnesty International. On 20 August Susan Lee, Amnesty's Regional Programme Director for the Americas, sent a letter to senior figures in the Chilean administration. In it she reiterated the organisation's belief that the use of military tribunals in these cases "generates a situation of impunity and denies the victims of human rights violations and their families the right to an effective legal remedy."

Her letter also expressed concern for the safety of a Mapuche community leader, Juana Calfunao Paillalef and her family. On 12 August Amnesty International launched an urgent action campaign on their behalf, fearing their lives may be in danger. The organisation described how Juana Paillalef had suffered persistent intimidation connected to her community's dispute with local landowners. In the early hours of 26 June her house was gutted by an apparent arson attack and a charred body found at the scene was later discovered to be that of her uncle, Basilio Coñoenao, also a community leader. He had not been staying at the house, and many local people fear that he was killed elsewhere and his body left in the burning ruins in an effort to cover up the murder.

For some days before the fire, cars from outside the community had been seen near the house at night, and Basilio Coñoenao and his nephew had received threats from landowners calling on the family to abandon their property. Although Basilio Coñoenao filed a complaint about this with the Regional Public Prosecutor, it is not known whether the police have made any progress with the investigation into either these threats or the fire. Juana Paillalef and the rest of her family have faced continued intimidation and it appears that no efforts have been made to protect them.

Appealing for the authorities to ensure their safety, Amnesty also called for progress in the investigation into an incident in May 2000 when Juana Paillalef was imprisoned for three days after being attacked in the town of Temuco. In custody she was tortured and beaten by the police and as a result suffered a miscarriage.

These incidents are among numerous reported cases of discrimination and ill-treatment suffered by the Mapuche. Their poor status in Chilean society was clearly outlined in a report published last year by Rodolfo Stavenhagen, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people.

Mr Stavenhagen visited Chile in July 2003 and concluded that "the indigenous population continues to be largely ignored and excluded from public life as a result of a long history of denial, social and economic exclusion and discrimination by the majority in society. "Among a series of recommendations, he argued that "under no circumstances should legitimate protest activities or social demands by indigenous organizations and communities be outlawed or penalized." He recommended the prompt ratification of Convention No. 169 of the International Labour Organisation, as well as of other international conventions that guarantee the human rights of indigenous people. He also urged the Chilean Government to search for a negotiated solution to the problems in the south and stated that "the principle of the protection of the human rights of indigenous peoples should take precedence over private commercial and economic interests."

Reynaldo Mariqueo, a Mapuche man forced into exile in England during the Pinochet regime, is among many campaigners calling for the government to take action on the findings of the report.

He recently described his concern on hearing about the case of two Chilean police officers who were granted asylum by a British court in September 2003. Jose Pino Ubilla and his wife Miram Solís Fernández fled Chile after expressing objections to their superior officers about institutional brutality by the police towards minority groups, including the Mapuche. During their appeal for asylum the couple submitted papers documenting the torture of arrested individuals and even police-authorised killings.

Mr Mariqueo said: "After 14 years of democratic government in Chile, we do not expect to hear of Chilean citizens seeking asylum in Europe. I hope President Lagos will succeed in implementing the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur and that the government will make a commitment to improving the present human rights situation, as well as working to resolve the legacy of the past."

Mapuche International Link, UNHCHR, Amnesty International, Human Rights
Watch, Santiago Times


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