Rights groups back Chile's tribal 'terrorists'

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The Independent US

There is not a handcuff in sight during breaks in legal proceedings when the men accused of being Chile's most dangerous terrorists joke and play their traditional trutruca horns outside the courtroom.

There is not a handcuff in sight during breaks in legal proceedings when the men accused of being Chile's most dangerous terrorists joke and play their traditional trutruca horns outside the courtroom.

To Chile's big landowners, the Mapuche Indian separatists now entering their second week on trial caused a reign of terror in the countryside that forced the government to invoke Pinochet-era terrorism laws to bring them to justice.

But human rights groups say the Mapuche are guilty of nothing more than defending their way of life, without a single casualty. Jorge Haiquín, one of only eight Mapuche who actually appeared at the hearings, said it was clear they were not terrorists. "You wouldn't see this anywhere else in the world," he said. "I mean, if we are supposedly terrorists, we shouldn't be out here like this."

Sixteen of the tribal leaders of the separatist Mapuche group, Coodinadora Arauco-Malleco (CAM), have been charged with offences concerning attacks on farms and forestry companies in 2001, and could face prison terms of more than 10 years if found guilty. Their efforts to burn plantations and equipment, and reclaim land, have hurt commercial interests and put intense pressure on Chile's Socialist government to get tough.

A southern agricultural consortium estimated that in the past five years, farmers and forestry companies have suffered more than 600 Mapuche attacks. They are estimated to have resulted in damage costing more than a billion pesos (£10m). International human rights groups disagree with the application of an anti-terrorist law for attacks that have never killed or seriously injured anybody.

"These are crimes against property rather than crimes against people," Sebastian Brett, a Human Rights Watch researcher said. "And while there's no universal definition of terrorism, most international conventions agree terrorism involves a threat to life." The only life taken so far was that of Mapuche Alex Lemún, allegedly shot by police as he attacked a pine tree plantation.

Juan Agustín Figueroa, a former agriculture minister and local landowner, had told the court of death threats and repeated fire attacks on his pine and eucalyptus plantations over the past three years.

"It has caused fear and a lot of anxiety for us and the others who've suffered such threats," Mr Figueroa said. "And it has brought damage from an economic point of view. Who wants to insure you after so many attacks?"

The specific charges in the trial concern the burning of six homesteads and 10 forestry plantations, trespassing, property damage and illegal weapons possession. Most of the attacks have been in the indigenous heartland of the Biobío and Araucanía regions, close to Temuco.

The Mapuche say they were tricked out of their ancestral lands by false titles more than a century ago. They say large-scale agriculture and forestry has been damaging the environment and threatening their traditional way of life. The charges are the result of a year-long criminal investigation. This week, the court was shown a dozen police surveillance tapes of public speeches, media interviews, or the accused going in and out of the home of the CAM's leader.

The trial could last up to three months, with more than 250 witnesses and experts testifying. Already six witnesses have done so with their identities shielded. The use of "faceless" witnesses is also being attacked by human rights advocates. "Under international norms of due process, the defence and prosecution must have equal right to cross-examination," Mr Brett said.

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