Chile's center-left government is using a draconian anti-terror law inherited from former dictator Augusto Pinochet to repress Indian protesters battling for land rights, rights groups said this week.
SANTIAGO, Chile Chile's center-left government is using a draconian anti-terror law inherited from former dictator Augusto Pinochet to repress Indian protesters battling for land rights, rights groups said this week.
Mapuche Indian activists face unfair trials with anonymous witnesses and excessive prison sentences under a 1984 law originally targeted at leftist guerrillas, according to a report by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch and Chile's Indigenous People's Rights Watch.
The Mapuches, a small minority of Chile's 15 million people, are fighting expanding commercial tree plantations on their ancestral lands in the south of Chile.
Small groups of Mapuches have clashed with the police and forestry companies since the late 1990s and have occupied land, set fire to forests, and sabotaged logging trucks.
In the the biggest Mapuche trial yet, 16 Indians face between five and 15 years in prison for arson or planning arson attacks. So far, more than six secret witnesses have testified, hidden behind a screen and their voices distorted.
The government and timber companies one of Chile's most powerful industries say these arson attacks are terrorist acts.
The report says protesters have committed crimes that have not injured anybody nor threatened public safety.
"Chile tells the world community that it suffers no threat from terrorism domestically ... yet it applies this legislation to crimes of arson and land occupation. These do not constitute terrorism," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch.
Chile has become a regional model of political stability after emerging from the 1973-1990 military dictatorship. The coalition in power since 1990 was born out condemnation of Pinochet's dismal human rights record.
"It's a sad spectacle that has nothing to do with guaranteeing due process," said Rodrigo Lillo, legal director of Indigenous People's Rights Watch.