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Chilean congressmen join Mapuche hunger strike

Four members of the Human Rights Commission in Congress have joined 34 indigenous Mapuche prisoners in a hunger strike, that is now two months old, to demand fair trials.

Although the protest stems from Mapuche demands for a return of their ancestral lands that are now owned by large landowners and lumber companies, the strikers are demanding a more basic human right: due process under civilian courts and their charges under ani-terrorist legislation dropped.

The Mapuche prisoners, most of whom belong to radical groups that have occupied lands, clashed with the police and commited acts of arson in demand of lands they consider their own, have been tried under the Pinochet-era anti-terrorist laws and in military courts in addition to the civilian tribunals, leading to unproportionally high sentences. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have harshly criticized these trials and appealed to the Chilean government to ensure them due process.

The four members of Congress visited the strikers on Thursday and decided to take up the hunger strike in solidarity and as a way to pressure the government into listening to them. The government, which has refused direct dialogue with the Mapuche, introduced a bill in the Senate that same evening to reform the anti-terrorist law.

The bill would better define terrorist acts and ensure fair sentences, among other things. Earlier this week, the government introduced another bill in Congress to limit the jurisdiction of the military justice system.

The two reforms are not new. Previous governments introduced similar bills but they always fell into the congressional blackhole because of opposition from conservative legislators.

For weeks, the government, the mass media and the general public ignored the strikers, but now that they have lost about 40 pounds each and some are in critical medical condition, President Sebastian Pinera is scrambling to put an end to the hunger strike for fear that a Mapuche death may spoil planned bicentennial celebrations next week.

No one is mediating and no negotiations are taking place, but the government has made a general call to the Catholic Chuch to act as intermediary. On Thursday, church officials called on the government and legislators to “act fast."