Chile: Mapuche prisoners start new hunger strike

A group of activists for the rights of indigenous Mapuche Chileans interrupted the Easter mass at Santiago’s Metropolitan Cathedral on April 24 to call for the release of four Mapuche prisoners who have been on hunger strike since March 15. The activists, led by the prisoners’ spokesperson, Natividad Llanquileo, waited until a few minutes after the homily to begin their protest; they shouted slogans and unfurled a banner that read: “Freedom for the Mapuche political prisoners.” Carabinero police agents arrived and dispersed the demonstrators; two were detained but were released later.

The protest was “an expression of human sorrow more than an interruption,” said Santiago archbishop Ricardo Ezzati, who was presiding over the service, “and it asks us to experience Easter by extending a hand to those who suffer.” Ezzati was a mediator in negotiations that ended a lengthy hunger strike by 34 Mapuche prisoners in the fall of 2010. (La Nación, Chile, Apr. 24)

The four prisoners—Héctor Llaitul, Ramón Llenaquileo, José Huenuche and Jonathan Huillica—were among 17 indigenous Mapuche activists tried this year on “terrorism” charges relating to a fire and an attack on a prosecutor, Mario Elgueta, in October 2008. All the defendants were acquitted of the “terrorism” charges on Feb. 22, but these four prisoners were convicted of attempted homicide, a common crime, in the attack on Elgueta. Their sentences were expected to be up to 15 years in prison, but on March 22 the judges handed down prison terms of 20 to 25 years. The four activists started their hunger strike before the sentencing to protest the prosecutors’ use of an unidentified witness in the case and the use of charges based on a harsh “antiterrorism” law that dates back to the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The four prisoners took part in last year’s hunger strike, and they started the new fast in a weakened state of health. As of April 20 Guatemalan indigenous activist and 1992 Nobel peace prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum had joined Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, French musician Manu Chao, US sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, Mexican sociologist Pablo González Casanova, Brazilian philosopher Emir Sader and many others in signing a letter of solidarity with the prisoners. Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the Argentine winner of the 1980 Nobel peace prize, had sent a letter earlier to Chilean Supreme Court president Milton Juica Arancibia condemning the convictions and the sentences. (Adital, Brazil, April 15, from Radio Universidad de Chile; Prensa Latina, April 20)

In other news, Mapuche leaders made a complaint to the military prosecutor for Valdivia province the week of April 18 concerning alleged abuses by Carabineros in the communities of Juan Painepe and Vicente Reinahuel in Panguipulli in the Los Ríos region of southern Chile. “At 6 pm they entered the community and began to harass the people, who now have to stay in the mountains,” charged Jorge Hueque, a member of the Mapuche parliament in Koz Koz valley. “They even harass the children. The children have to stay in the mountains, go to school in the morning and then return.” The police agents were sent to the area at the beginning of April in response to a complaint by a company, Las Vertientes, which claims land also claimed by the Mapuche communities. Community members have occupied some of the disputed area. (Adital, April 20)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 24.

See our last posts on Chile and Mapuche struggles.