SANTIAGO, May 24 (IPS) - Indigenous people in Chile face serious problems in terms of access to justice and protection of their rights, Sergio Laurenti, executive director of Amnesty International-Chile, told IPS.
"We regularly receive complaints, and practically every day we hear news about (mistreatment of and discrimination against) Mapuche people," he said during a meeting with the press ahead of Wednesday's release of Amnesty's annual human rights report 2007, which for the fifth year in a row mentions ill-treatment of indigenous people in Chile.
The Mapuche, who number 600,000 in this country of 15.6 million, are the biggest indigenous group in Chile, making up 87 percent of the total native population. One-fifth of them live in the southern region of Araucanía.
In the report, the London-based Amnesty states that Carabineros (militarised police) raided the Mapuche indigenous community of Temucuicui in Araucanía in July 2006, purportedly looking for livestock stolen from local ranchers. However, the community denied that any stolen animals were being held on their land.
"Police reportedly fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition at members of the community, who were unarmed. Several people were injured and a number of homes destroyed. Children were affected by the tear gas and several escaped to nearby hills. Women and children were ill-treated," says the report.
And in December, "police reportedly fired on Temucuicui Mapuche individuals who were collecting their salaries in the city of ErcillaàUp to six civilians were believed to have been injured, including a number of children," the report adds.
"Police brutality continues to be a problem, at least in the province of Malleco (where the incidents occurred), with between five and 10 communities affected," José Aylwin, co-director of the Observatory of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, based in Temuco, the capital of the region of Araucanía, told IPS.
"Several lawsuits have been presented against the Carabineros by the communities in conjunction with the Observatory," said the activist. "Talks have also been set up, with the participation of the government of the province of Malleco and representatives of the Carabineros. But the police deny taking part in the reported incidents."
Above and beyond such incidents, "the state of economic prostration of certain indigenous communities is not seen by the Chilean state as a situation that should cause concern from a human rights perspective," journalist Nibaldo Mosciatti, press officer for the Bío-Bío radio station, told IPS.
The main Mapuche communities are in the south, and the news coming from there does not have a great impact and does not become a national issue, said Mosciatti, who was invited by Amnesty to comment on the report. These incidents "occur in the region of Araucanía, and stay there," he added.
"The power of the logging companies (that have displaced indigenous people from their land in that region) is so strong that in the end you have the sensation and suspicion that part of the state apparatus is placed at their disposal, which is more or less what occurs in the north, where small communities are fighting mining corporations over water rights," said Mosciatti.
The Amnesty report also notes that former dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), under whose regime "gross human rights violations considered crimes against humanity were committed," died on Dec. 10, 2006 without ever having "attended any judicial hearings in any Chilean court."
The rights group points out that at the time of his death, the elderly former dictator was facing legal action in Chilean courts in relation to cases "in which thousands of people were subjected to torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearance."
"With respect to Pinochet, the cases are closed, but in each case there were others who were also responsible," said Laurenti, who urged the justice system to continue investigating and to hold those responsible accountable.
"Amnesty has identified and published the names of at least 20 former military officers who are subject to prosecution," said the executive director of the Chilean branch of the international rights watchdog. "Out of a total of 600 cases (that have gone to court), we know of only 12 people who are in prison. This is a strong signal that impunity is being tolerated."
The rights group also observed that the government had not reached a decision on whether the amnesty law that let off the hook those who committed human rights violations during the dictatorship should be annulled, repealed or amended, after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in September 2006 that the 1978 law was not admissible and could not be applied to crimes against humanity.
The Inter-American Court verdict involved the case of Luis Alfredo Almonacid, a teacher, trade unionist and member of the Communist Party who was arrested and shot by police in the presence of his family in September 1973.
But in her state of the union address on Monday, socialist President Michelle Bachelet specifically said that she would support "the verdict that declared the amnesty inapplicable and stressed that there is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity."
The president also said she would push for "the ratification of the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture."
In addition, she announced the creation of a Human Rights Institute, the founding of the first National Memory Museum and the declaration of Aug. 30 as the National Day of the Detained-Disappeared.
"The president has announced a string of important human rights measures," said Laurenti. "This is good news. But there is a gap between what is said and what is actually done. Our hope is that she will use her leadership to make sure that these promises are fulfilled."
Amnesty also criticised the harsh conditions, overcrowding, lack of medical attention, ill-treatment and corruption by guards in prisons, while stating that there were "reports of excessive use of force by police against student demonstrators and journalists" when secondary school students held protests and went on strike in May, June and October, calling for an overhaul of the education system.
Both Laurenti and Mosciatti, meanwhile, complained about the "selective arrests" by the Carabineros during the May 1 marches held to celebrate International Labour Day.
"Preventive, selective arrests" carried out merely on the basis of suspicious appearance or behaviour can "imply a violation of human rights," said Laurenti.
For his part, Mosciatti said that "I would like to see at the end of the year what conclusion we reach on the government's response to protest demonstrations. In my view, selective arrests are a very serious matter. Arresting people who are not committing any crime and for whom no arrest warrant has been issued is a violation of the penal code; these are illegal arrests."
With respect to the year ahead, Laurenti was optimistic, saying 2007 would be marked by a growing "appropriation of economic, social and cultural rights by Chileans," who he said are becoming increasingly aware of their rights. (END/2007)