Mapuche Indians in Chile Set Up Autonomous Legal Defense Unit

As tensions mount in Chile’s Mapuche territories, the indigenous people have created a new legal defense body for cases involving resistance against the state. Apparently, the Mapuches put little stock in the justice system for working out cases such as land disputes.

“Practically everyone in our family is in prison, and those of us who aren’t are subject to restraining orders that restrict our movements,” stated Antonio Cadín, “werkén” (spokesman) for the Juan Paillalef community 730 kilometres south of the capital.

The Mapuche activist is serving a five-year sentence under which he is only locked up at night, for defiance of authority and disorderly conduct. His wife, Juana Calfunao, the “lonko” (maximum traditional authority) of the community, is serving four-and-a-half years on the same charges. Their youngest daughter, 12-year-old Relmutray, has applied for political asylum in Switzerland.

“There is ample evidence indicating that since her birth, Relmutray has lived in an environment of relentless police tension and harassment,” reads a document that the Mapuche International Link (MIL) submitted to the United Nations in 2008. “She has witnessed police brutality against her parents and her community as well as personally suffering inhumane, cruel, and degrading treatment.”

Cadín says his people are protesting against the neglect, discrimination and harsh treatment they have faced since the earliest days of the Chilean state, for which no solutions have been found in the 20 years of democracy that have followed the 1973-1990 dictatorship.

In order to fight for their rights and overcome injustices, the Juan Paillalef community has coordinated with more than 20 other Mapuche communities to form the Defensor Jurídico Social Autónomo Mapuche (Autonomous Mapuche Legal and Social Defence unit).

The unprecedented legal defense body is headed by the traditional authorities, and is made up of “six lawyers and a multidisciplinary team that includes psychologists, a social worker, an anthropologist and a sociologist, to lend support to defence testimony in the courts when our people are on trial,” said Cadín, the coordinator of the Defensor Jurídico unit.

The Mapuche are the largest indigenous group in Chile, numbering about one million people out of a total population of 16 million. Nearly half of them live in the capital city, and the rest live mainly in the southern region of Araucanía.

In this southern region, the ongoing struggle of the Mapuche for land that they claim as their ancestral territory has sparked conflicts, with activists staging land occupations and setting fire to trucks that extract logs from forests they regard as their own, on one hand, and rampant police brutality on the other.

In October 2009, the representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in this country, Gary Stahl, made an appeal “for a halt to the violence involving children, whichever side is responsible for it,” after meeting with three government ministers to convey UNICEF’s deep concern over grave reports of police brutality against Mapuche children.

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