In a significant setback for Chilean prosecutors, judges in Cañete in the central province of Arauco voted on Feb. 22 not to convict 17 indigenous Mapuche activists on “terrorism” charges relating to a fire and an attack on a prosecutor, Mario Elgueta, in Tirúa in October 2008. The judges acquitted most of the defendants of all charges, but they found four of the activists—Héctor Llaitul, Ramón Llenaquileo, José Huenuche and Jonathan Huillical—guilty of attempted homicide, a common crime, in the attack on Elgueta.
The four convicted activists may receive prison terms of up to 15 years at their sentencing, scheduled for March 22, but they could have been condemned to 103-year terms if prosecutors had succeeded in convicting them on “illegal terrorist association,” a charge based on Law No. 19.027, which was enacted during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The accused, said to be members of the Arauco Malleco Coordinating Committee (CAM), were among 34 Mapuche prisoners who participated in a hunger strike in the late summer of 2010 to protest the law, which treats land occupations and attacks on the equipment or personnel of multinational companies as acts of terrorism. Indigenous activists say they need to use these tactics to protest illegal seizures of their land.
Chilean activists and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) treated the acquittals as a “positive step.” But the terrorism law remains on the books, with some modifications, and in deciding to acquit the defendants the judges cited the lack of convincing evidence, not problems with the law. (País Mapuche, Chile, Feb. 22, from Radio Biobio; AFP, Feb. 22, via Terra, Peru; La Jornada, Mexico, Feb. 24, from correspondent)
National Public Defender Paula Vial, whose office defended some of the activists, charged that the trial was marked by irregularities, despite the acquittals. The four convictions were based on testimony from a “faceless witness”—a witness whose identity remains secret—and on statements by one of the accused that were apparently obtained through torture. “Is it possible to affirm that these citizens confronted the arms of the government on equal terms?” Vial asked. “Is it possible to affirm that they received a just trial?” (La Nación, Chile, Feb. 25)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 27.