Jan. 11, 2008

IAHRC Inquires After Health Of Political Prisoner Patricia Troncoso

(Jan. 11, 2008) A convicted Chilean “terrorist” is now three months into a dangerous hunger strike that is receiving increasing international attention but has so far earned nothing but silence from Chilean government officials.

The case was acknowledged earlier this week by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC), which asked the Chilean government for information about the health of striker Patricia Troncoso Robles. A well known pro-Mapuche rights activist, Troncoso is currently serving a 10-year sentence in Temuco’s Angol Prison, Region IX.

The IAHRC, a legal branch of the Organization of American States, was informed of the case by Alberto Espinoza, a lawyer with the Christian Churches Social Assistance Foundation (FASIC). Espinoza recently filed a report with the Washington, D.C.-based commission arguing that Chile’s authorities unfairly applied anti-terrorism laws in prosecuting Troncoso and other prisoners involved in arson attacks on private land holdings in southern Chile.

In 2003 Troncoso, a former Universidad Católica de Valparaíso theology professor, was convicted under an Augusto Pinochet-era anti-terrorism law for her alleged involvement in burning nearly 250 acres of pine plantations belonging to the Minico Company. Minico is owned by a powerful Chilean conglomerate called the Matte Group.

The attack was one of many carried out over the years by Mapuche activists wanting to reclaim ancestral lands usurped by private, non-indigenous owners. Troncoso is not herself of indigenous descent.

On Oct. 10 of last year, Troncoso and four other Angol prisoners – Jose Huenchunao, Juan Millalen, Jaime Marileo and Hector Llaitul – launched a hunger strike in an attempt to draw attention to their plight. Arguing that the anti-terrorism law should never have been applied in their cases, the strikers demanded the release of all Mapuche political prisoners, including themselves.

Huenchunao, Millalen and Marlieo ended their fast on Dec. 14. A few days later the two remaining strikers, who by that time had each lost more than 50 pounds, were transferred to a nearby hospital. Llaitul broke his fast last week, after 81 days. But Troncoso, who remains hospitalized, has refused to end the strike and says she will continue until her death, if needs be.

The anti-terrorism law used to convict Troncoso and others dates back to the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) when it was used to control armed political groups involved in kidnappings, attacks on police stations and assassinations.

The law was dusted off and reapplied during the Ricardo Lagos government, when courts began using it in cases involving property attacks carried out by Mapuche groups. According to a 2004 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, the anti-terrorism law is the “harshest” of all Chilean statutes.

“It doubles the normal sentences for some offenses, makes pretrial release more difficult, enables the prosecution to withhold evidence from the defense for up to six months, and allows defendants to be convicted on testimony given by anonymous witnesses. These witnesses appear in court behind screens so that the defendants and the public cannot see them,” the report states.

HRW and other human rights groups say Chile has gone too far in applying the anti-terrorism law to the Mapuche land conflict issue. While acts such as arson are indeed crimes, as recognized by Chile’s criminal code, they do not constitute terrorism, the organizations argue.

“Chile’s use of the anti-terrorism law for crimes committed by Mapuche in the context of land conflicts, which do not approach this threshold of seriousness, is not only inappropriate but also reinforces existing prejudices against the Mapuche people,” reads the HRW report, entitled “Undue Process: Terrorism Trials, Military Courts, and the Mapuche in Southern Chile.”

Troncoso is reported to be in extremely delicate condition. Her now three-month-old hunger strike is the longest in Chilean history. Last month she sent a letter to President Michelle Bachelet, who has yet to comment publicly on the dangerous hunger strike.

“I want to ask you Ms. Michelle Bachelet. You, who once was a political prisoner, you who was tortured, do you today feel pleasure torturing us? What do you feel Ms. President? What goes through your head when you hear about people who have fasted for 65, 66 days, whose lives are slipping away little by little?” the letter reads.

By Benjamin Witte (