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Chile Invokes Chilling Anti-Terrorist Law Against Indigenous Mapuche

A Mapuche chief’s home has been destroyed in a suspicious blaze days after the president of Chile invoked a controversial anti-terrorist law in accusing Mapuche people of setting a number of wildfires that killed seven firefighters.

The blaze that destroyed Mapuche Chief Jose Santos Millao’s home on January 8 occurred while he was attending a funeral for the firefighters, Global Post reported. Millao is a historical Mapuche leader and currently director of the National Indigenous Development Corporation, CONADI. Millao’s home was in Araucania, a region rife with conflicts over indigenous land rights as Mapuche Indians there struggle to reclaim their ancient lands that have been taken over by forestry companies. Hours after Millao’s home was destroyed, hooded men also burned the home of a retired military officer and shot at police officers, the BBC reported.

The seven firefighters died in the wildfires that started on December 27. Extremely dry conditions and high winds fanned the flames of more than 50 wildfires that burned dozens of homes and destroyed around 123,000 acres of woodland and brush, according to the AFP. Fires erupted almost simultaneously in the forest areas of Biobio, Maule and Araucania around 310 to 435 miles south of the capital Santiago. Chile’s Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter suggested that the wildfires may have been set by the Arauco-Malleco Coordination Group (CAM), a group of Mapuche activists that had claimed arson attacks which destroyed a firefighting helicopter and other forestry vehicles on December 30. "The CAM claims the attack against a forestry helicopter, and soon there are more fires,” Hinzpeter said.

Chile’s billionaire president Sebastián Piñera invoked the country’s anti-terrorism laws to punish the alleged arsonists even before an official cause of fire had been determined, Forbes Online said. "Clearly, the intentional and criminal character of provoking simultaneous and deliberate fires makes this conduct of a terrorist nature," Piñera said.

Millao told Chilean radio that invoking the terror law before the cause of the fires was established amounted to a "declaration of war" against the Mapuche, the BBC reported. Mapuche activists told the BBC that the government is trying to criminalize their movement.

Chile’s controversial anti-terror law dates back to the 1973-1990 reign of dictator Augusto Pinochet. The draconian anti-terror law allows for suspects to be detained for indefinite periods of time without charge and allows the use of testimony from anonymous witnesses in trials, Forbes Online said. Some aspects of the Pinochet-era legislation parallel the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which was signed into law by President Obama on New Year’s Eve. The NDAA allows for the indefinite detention without charge or trial of people suspected of terrorism, including U.S. citizens detained on U.S. soil.

Chile’s anti-terrorism law was invoked last year against four Mapuche men—activists involved in the struggle for their land rights who were sentenced to 20 and 25 years in prison in what appeared to be trumped up charges under the anti-terrorism legislation. “What is happening in Chile isn’t justice; it’s a pantomime, because under the anti-terrorism law, there is absolutely no way justice can be done,” said José Venturelli, spokesman for the European Secretariat of the Ethics Commission against Torture. The Mapuche (which means "people of the land" in their language, Mapuzungun) are Chile’s largest indigenous group, numbering nearly one million among Chile’s population of more than 16 million. Their struggle for their land rights has frequently pitted them against not only forestry companies but also large landholders and other private interests.

Under Chile’s anti-terrorist law, prosecutors may keep their evidence secret, anonymous witnesses can testify for the prosecution, prosecutors may apply for powers to tap telephones and intercept correspondence, e-mails and other communications, suspects can be held for up to 10 days before formal charges are brought, and detainees often face long periods of pretrial detention and disproportionately long sentences.

On January 9, Piñera reiterated his support for the Pinochet regime’s law and defended its implantation in the case of the alleged arson attacks throughout the country. “The law will continue to be applied whenever necessary to fight this small group of people who, without respect for life or property, seek to impose their views through terror,” Piñera said.