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Chile must repeal anti-terror laws affecting Mapuche Indians

19 October 2010

MRG welcomes the resolution of a long standing dispute between Mapuche Indians and the Chilean government, which brought an end to a 82-day hunger strike, and calls on the government to act swiftly to repeal anti-terror laws that were at the heart of the problem.

Whilst national and world attention was focused on the 33 trapped miners in Copiapó, the Chilean government managed, through a series of agreements, to negotiate an end to the long standing protest by Mapuche Indians on 1 October 2010. A group of 10 prisoners, spread between a prison in Angol and a hospital in Victoria, continued with the strike for an additional week, citing the terms of the agreement as insufficient.

The first group of five indigenous protesters began their hunger strike on July 12 and were immediately joined by 13 others. By the end of July another 13 Mapuche prisoners were also on protest fasts. Among their demands were calls for trial in a civil rather than military court and withdrawal of their charges under Chile’s anti-terror law.

The Mapuche (literally People of the Land) make up 87 percent of Chile's indigenous population, and are the original inhabitants of the south-central region. They currently constitute about one million of Chile's 16 million total population.

With the help of Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati, who acted as the chief negotiator, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera's came to an agreement with the imprisoned Mapuche and promised to reform both the anti-terrorism laws and the practice of placing civilians before military tribunals.

These concessions represent a positive first step, says MRG, but urges Chile to repeal the law and comply with their international human rights obligations.

The Law

The controversial Law No. 19.027 was first enacted in 1984 during the military dictatorship of General August Pinochet as an "anti-terrorism" measure. Since then it has been used exclusively against the Mapuche.

The law treats illegal land occupations and attacks on the equipment or personnel of multinational companies as acts of terrorism and subjects those charged to both civilian and military trials. Moreover it sanctions the use of “anonymous” or unidentified prosecution witnesses, and allows for indefinite detention for people labelled as being terrorists.

Under Chile's civilian law all testimony from unidentified witnesses is regarded as invalid and prisoners can apply for remission.

The law has been criticized by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights as well as Minority Rights Group International (MRG). The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has stated that the law goes against international standards of justice and should be abolished.

The Mapuche

Issues of land and autonomy are central to Mapuche protests. Before the colonial era Mapuche territory extended across present day Chile and Argentina. Spanish colonizers signed a treaty in 1641 recognizing an independent Mapuche state in southern Chile. However, in 1883 the area was militarily annexed by the post independence Chilean state.

No Chilean government has ever fully recognized Mapuche territorial claims. Throughout the twentieth century the state encouraged European immigration into Mapuche areas and under General Pinochet forestry, agribusiness companies and other firms were offered land and subsidies to operate in those regions. This has resulted in indigenous communities continually being forced off their ancestral lands.

Since the 19th century the Mapuches have lost 95 percent of their land and seen their territory shrink, from 10 million hectares in 1883, to about 500,000 today.

In efforts to reclaim ancestral holdings several Mapuche activist groups have resorted to extreme tactics in recent years, such as land occupations, road blockages, and setting fire to crops, timber and forestry machinery.

Police responses have included heavily armed community presence, helicopter over flights, and home invasions. These have been criticized by human rights groups who blame the authorities for discrimination and use of excessive force.

According to Carla Clark, MRG’s Legal Cases Officer, "The use of anti-terrorist legislation, in response to the demands of the Mapuche to their ancestral lands is totally misguided and a direct violation of human rights, as recognised on repeated occasions by numerous UN human rights bodies."