Latin America & Caribbean

UN criticises Chile for using terror law on Mapuche

Mapuche Indians from the Temucuicui Autonoma community , 9 Feb 2013
Image caption Anti-terrorism law has been used against the Mapuche for more than 10 years

A senior United Nations lawyer has launched a blistering attack on Chile for its treatment of the country's Mapuche indigenous minority.

Ben Emmerson, the UN's special rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, said a long-running dispute over land rights could boil over into serious violence at any moment.

He said Chilean police were guilty of "a systematic use of excessive force".

The Mapuche make up 9% of the Chilean population.

Mr Emmerson said the state had repeatedly discriminated against the Mapuche and used anti-terrorism legislation against them "in a confused and arbitrary fashion that has resulted in real injustice".

"The situation in the Araucania and Bio Bio regions is extremely volatile," Mr Emmerson warned, referring to the southern regions where the Mapuche have traditionally lived.

"In the absence of prompt and effective action at a national level it could quickly escalate into widespread disorder and violence."

Arson attacks

Before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th Century the Mapuche inhabited a vast swathe of land in southern Chile.

Renowned for their ferocity, they successfully resisted conquest until the late 19th Century, when they were rounded up into small communities. Much of their land was sold off to farmers and forestry companies.

In recent years the Mapuche have waged a sometimes violent campaign to win back that land.

Protests have ranged from marches, hunger strikes and the occupation of public buildings to the setting up of road blocks, the occupation of disputed land, arson and the sabotage of machinery and equipment.

Image caption The UN rapporteur says the police has used violence during raids on Mapuche communities

The state has occasionally responded by invoking Chile's anti-terrorism law, drafted by General Augusto Pinochet in 1984 and designed to stamp out opposition to his rule.

The law is one of the harshest in the Chilean statute book. It doubles the sentences for some offences and allows for the conviction of defendants on the basis of testimony from anonymous witnesses.

Mr Emmerson made three recommendations to the Chilean government at the end of his two-week visit:

  • The adoption of a "national strategy" to deal with the Mapuche conflict "within a defined and relatively short timescale". He said this would require "a paradigm shift in political will".
  • An end to the use of the anti-terrorism law in cases involving Mapuche land protests. Mr Emmerson said those convicted in the past on the basis of testimony from anonymous witnesses should have their convictions reviewed.
  • The establishment of a new body to investigate claims of excessive police violence against the Mapuche. Mr Emmerson said the current body had "conspicuously failed in its duty to enforce the law".

The Chilean government has yet to respond to the recommendations.

The Mapuche conflict has been rumbling on for years in the south, with sporadic outbursts of violence.

In January this year, a group of assailants set fire to a house belonging to an elderly couple whose family has a history of poor relations with their Mapuche neighbours. The couple died in the blaze.

Three Mapuche protesters have been shot dead by the police in separate incidents over the past decade.

Mapuche prisoners have staged hunger strikes in protest at their conviction under the anti-terrorist law and what they regard as excessive police violence during raids.

In 2010, the government of Sebastian Pinera reformed the anti-terrorism law, but Mapuche activists say the changes did not go far enough.

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