Chilean New Year’s Resolution: RELEASE OF PRISONERS NOW!

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The new year 2021 began reaffirming the campaign to free all the people imprisoned because of the revolt or social outbreak that began in Chile in October 2019. This was the largest social revolt since the end of the dictatorship, on March 11, 1990. More specifically, it began on October 18, although it was preceded by the protests against the increase in public transport fares in Santiago (October 6), which also suffered great repression. Many people consider that it ended on March 18, when the confinement measures due to the Covid 19 pandemic began, but arguably the resistance never ended because its consequences still linger on. In addition, with the pandemic, people began to protest against hunger and to organize common pots, suffering repression and subsequently, imprisonment, which can be understood as a continuation of the outbreak.1

Repression and imprisonment of participants in the Revuelta

Due to its magnitude, the revolt also suffered great police repression with an estimated 32 dead and 2400 civilians hospitalized. All these data are the official ones, although it is known that there are many more because they are not all registered. Among the people considered as wounded, it is worth mentioning the 400 people who lost their eyesight due to the indiscriminate use of pellets, as reported on the website Los Ojos de Chile2 (The Eyes of Chile). The Chilean Ophthalmological Association described it as the greatest disaster in the country’s history.

 

Among the incomplete data because it is limited to official data, the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH3) refers to 8,812 detainees they visited. However, 27,432 detainees are estimated, of which, according to the National Prosecutor’s Office, 2,500 were imprisoned. Of these, several of those imprisoned are minors.

Faced with such a volume, as in the times of the 1973 coup d’état prior to the dictatorship, public buildings were made available to detain the detainees. This meant a restriction of basic conditions, worsened by the desire to inflict extraordinary punishment on the detainees that would transcend in exemplary punishment, both for the detainees themselves and for the rest of society. In this regard, the detainee Isabella Baeza told A Planeta that in her locality, in Punta Arenas, the place chosen was the same Carabineros gymnasium used to detain the reprisals of the 1973 coup d’état.4

The National Institute of Human Rights (INDH5) reports more than 4,000 cases of human rights violations, but there are 8,827 complaints of torture and other ill-treatment by the Armed Forces. Among the cases collected by the INDH, beatings stand out (more than 1,600) and due to their seriousness, gunshots with firearms (1,334), as well as 51 injured by water jet impact and 42 run over by police vehicles. The latter reminds us of the formula used in the racial protests in the USA after the assassination of George Floyd, both by the police and by fascists6. In the same way, abuses abound in the place of detention, in many cases that can be considered as torture (asphyxiation, electrodes, beatings, death threats), with overkill and humiliation, and with the aggravating circumstance in the case of women. More than 300 beatings were recorded, and above all, in the case of women, additional abuse occurred including groping (91), rape (7) and threat of rape (32).

But in addition to the nature of the arrests, the lack of legal support for most of them, and reported cases of abuse, it is important to also note the arbitrary nature of the arrests and the disproportionate nature of the penalties.

Pre-trial detention was used indiscriminately to imprison people who participated in the protest. As in other places, this is a precautionary measure that should be used on exceptional occasions but instead tends to be used systemically, thus violating one of the basic pillars on which democracy should be based, the principle of presumption of innocence. In the Chilean case, the application of this law does not respect the basic principles on which it is based, such as the existence of antecedents that allow to presume the participation of the accused person in the crime, and others. Another law used for a similar purpose was the Arms Control Law (Law 18.216, Article 1). In a communiqué, the Organization of Relatives and Friends of Political Prisoners (OFAPP) was alarmed by the use of this law because it restricts the prison benefits of those accused under this heading.7

Repression and imprisonment of participants in the Outbreak

Due to its magnitude, the state also used significant police repression against the revolt, with an estimated 32 dead and 2400 civilians hospitalized. All these data are the official ones, although it is known that there are many more because they are not all recorded. Among the people considered as wounded, it is worth mentioning the 400 people who lost their eyesight due to the indiscriminate use of pellets, as reported on the website Los Ojos de Chile2 (The Eyes of Chile). The Chilean Ophthalmological Association described it as the greatest disaster in history.

In this sense, the repression was not only exercised by the police (carabineros) but also by the judicial system, and equally protected by the government itself and its president.

The Organization of Relatives and Friends of Political Prisoners (OFAPP) communicated its concern for what it called “grotesque interference by the Executive in the affairs of the Judicial Branch, through lawsuits, meetings, public pronouncements, telephone calls, etc. “.8 Likewise, the organization of relatives denounced two standards of justice, on the one hand a drastic one applied to the participants in the protests and on the other a light one applied to those responsible for the most serious violations of human rights.

The Organization of Relatives and Friends of Political Prisoners (OFAPP) was created now a year ago, in January 2020 in parallel to the October 18th Coordinating Committee, to respond to the mass arrests and their effect on their families. “There we started to get to know each other among the families and we saw that we had the same doubts, sorrows, fears, consultations” explains Muriel Torres, activist and partner and sister-in-law of prisoners. “We began to group together and share ideas and our main

interest, which is the freedom of the prisoners “.9 OFAPP’s activity is also political, in the streets with demonstrations, marches, cacerolazos, etc., and currently, every Wednesday, with rallies in different parts of Santiago to demand the release of prisoners.

In the metropolis of Concepción operates the collective No Más Presxs Por Luchar10, with similar objectives: freedom for prisoners, solidarity, information, etc. They underline that there is a “difference in treatment according to the social sector”, since “no rich person has been touched for their crimes” nor have “politicians and businessmen involved in corruption” been imprisoned. In the same way, many of the prisoners suffer limitations to cover their basic needs within the same prison or to be guaranteed a defense, a situation aggravated by the pandemic. Such is the case of Carlos Peyrin, who is serving a three-year prison sentence, for which they request solidarity11.

The people imprisoned for hunger refer to those imprisoned with confinement, especially for looting to supply the common pots and the distribution of food baskets in the towns during the pandemic12 . Another 15 people were imprisoned for these reasons. Constanza Valdebenito, from Concepción, is one of them13. Protests against the hunger caused by the measures against Covid 19 were also harshly repressed.

Proposal for an Amnesty Law in December 2020

During this year 2020, the government did grant pardons to prisoners due to the Covid 19 pandemic. But this did not include neither prisoners of the outbreak nor Mapuche prisoners. As a result, the 26 Mapuche prisoners began a hunger strike that lasted more than 120 days hunger strike (8 from Angol 140). On August 18, 2020, Machi Celestino Córdova ended his hunger strike after reaching an agreement with the government.

One year after the outbreak, on December 22, 2020, the Chilean Senate began debating a bill to pardon the detainees. This debate and the commission created initially proposed amnesty, but conditions were added that ended up excluding many of the prisoners. Obviously, the proposal was the result of the demands and perseverance of social organizations. But now, with the Constitutional Convention close (April 2021) and presidential and municipal elections coming up, many politicians have joined this demand in a self-interested way.

This has also opened a discussion that is always controversial in Chile, as in any new democracy, such as the Spanish one, which is question of political prisoners and whether the state denies their existence or not, because in a certain way, the demand for amnesty questions whether or not there is a true democracy. For this reason, the government itself was categorical in its refusal, and Piñera even announced that he would veto the pardon project. Obviously, most of the people imprisoned (because many of the evidence and cases do not comply with any rigor) were imprisoned as a result of protests against Piñera , and so it is evident that he lacks desire to release prisoners or to recognize their causes, especially after the way in which the protest escalated.

In this controversy, the positions of organizations such as Human Rights Watch stand out, due to their responsibility in the matter they claim to defend, human rights, and for the legitimacy they can offer the government to continue with anti-social policies. HRW, through its director for Latin America, denied that there were political prisoners in Chile. José Miguel Vivanco argued that the alleged prisoners “have been prosecuted for the disorders that took place and also for vandalism, for attempting against property for crimes of arson”. That statement also included the Mapuche prisoners.

However, this logic overlooks the reality of many of the people imprisoned: many were imprisoned without evidence, based on fabricated cases, or are imprisoned preventively without having proven their guilt. It also, of course, ignores that the real reasons for having protested were political, and that thanks to their protest and participation, things were achieved in that society such as a consultation, the repeal of the constitution of the Pinochet dictatorship or a constituent assembly, all of them measures of a clearly political nature.

Regarding this, the Assembly 18 de Octubre took a position, stating that “just as 40 years ago when the dictatorship denied the existence of disappeared detainees, the current government rejects the existence of political prisoners, trying to provide an image of false normality” (November 26, 2020).

Thus, one of the deputies who promoted the bill proposal for the amnesty of detainees, Camila Vallejo Dowling1, argued that “we are indebted to the people who initiated this process and who were marked forever”. But there are those who go further because they do not even accept this pardon because they consider it insufficient, as Estallido Tuitero demands justice: “Justice is not being applied. We do believe that criminals should be imprisoned, but all of them, those in government would be the first: they do not contribute anything good to the country”.14

Imprisoned without foundation

Of the people imprisoned for the explosion, many are/have been imprisoned without any evidence. In many cases, the only evidence presented has been the statements of the Carabineros and the Investigative Police (PDI). Of the thousands of existing cases, naming just a few runs the risk of seeming to be the only ones, but it is important to cite some examples that serve to illustrate such an injustice.

The OFAPP echoed, among others, the irregular trials of prisoners Carlos Peyrin (Concepción), Héctor Cortes (Antofagasta) and Francisco Hernández (Santiago). The latter was sentenced on September 2, 2020 to 5 years in prison under the Arms Control Law. In his detention he was bestially tortured and forced to sign a self-incriminating statement.

One of the most controversial cases and also one of the most used by the pro-government press and institutions to discredit the protests was the burning of churches, which in reality corresponds to only two15. The brothers Christian and Rodrigo Sanhueza were arrested in connection with the January 3, 2020 protest. But they, as the former’s companion Muriel Torres16 explains, were not even there, as the three were returning together from the demonstration in homage to the Mapuche murdered 12 years earlier, Matias Catrileo17.

 

As Muriel told A Planeta, “that day the repression was very strong, there were a lot of police, drones…. That day the church of the Chilean police was burned down. We were not there when it happened, we even watched it from afar. We left the place and continued demonstrating until around 9:30 p.m. when we returned home in our car. Already far from the place, waiting for a traffic light, men in civilian clothes, armed and with bulletproof vests, got out of the 4 cars that surrounded us, threatening us very violently to get out, to raise our hands”. At first, she thought it was an assault because of the violence they displayed. It was not until she saw her partner and brother-in-law being handcuffed that she understood that, although she did not know the reason, it was an arrest. She did not know until their parents arrived at the police station. The accusation was of “attacking carabineros, that they wanted to kill policemen – with those words,” Muriel continues. “That day our suffering as a family began.” They remained imprisoned in Santiago 1 on charges of manufacturing, carrying and throwing an incendiary device. But four and a half months later they were placed

under house arrest for lack of evidence.

In this case, as in others in which the police are subjected to media or institutional pressure, especially at a time like that in which the explosion was entering its third month, with few signs of being able to quell it by repressive means, the police and other institutions can even opt for a set-up, using innocent people who can be arrested in order to show their efficiency and forcefulness.

In other cases, disproportionate measures do not entail imprisonment but other types of arrest. Camila Vera (32) and Isabella Baeza (23) were arrested on November 4, 2019 in Punta Arenas after a demonstration in the context of the Estallido. They were accused of a graffiti to a national monument. For said alleged crime that they were never able to prove, both suffered one year and one month of house arrest. This was revoked on December, 2020, modified to “arraigo regional” and monthly signature18. They define their case as “torture”, because in addition to the long duration of their sentence, their hearing will not be held until March 30, 2021.

But above all, as they denounce, their punishment has taken the form of constant harassment and persecution in the form of surveillance and monitoring. Moreover, the pandemic conditions added to the pandemic. As Isabella explained to A Planeta, “detention was difficult with the pandemic – there was a general emotional exhaustion, I think for all the people, and adding the house arrest was double, triple. So, yes, I think that the Covid situation increased the stress”. In that situation, they lost their jobs, rent, it was difficult for them to move house, get another job, etc. All this had a pernicious psychological effect, especially in the case of Camila, which also extended to her family19.

Isabella adds that “I felt my privacy was invaded because they took our cell phones and had access to all our photos and conversations”. Something that does not go unnoticed in this case is its character, as it involves two young women activists. As Camila states, “part of our investigative file turned us into serious crimes because we belong to feminist groups; and we were investigated only for being feminists, for being organized. We were criminalized for being feminists.

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REFERENCIAS

4Telephone interview conducted on January 15, 2021.

6See “2020: not only pandemic, but also revolt!!!”

8Organizations for the Freedom of the Political Prisoners of the Popular Revolt call for mobilization this October 5th. De Frente Revista- 20 September 2020.

9Telephone interview conducted on January 18, 2021.

13Constanza Valdebenito, in the El Manzano prison in Concepción, is one of them. Her health has deteriorated in prison.

16Telephone interview of January 18, 2020.

17 17Matías Catrileo, 23 years old, had been killed 12 years earlier by a carabinero, on January 3, 2008, in an attempt to recover land in the commune of Vilcún – He belonged to the Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM). The policeman opened fire on a group of people with a UZI submachine gun and hit Catrileo in the back.

18 Telephone interview of January 15, 2020.

19Camila Vera and Isabella Baeza (2020) “Brief account of my detention”.

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