70 Days: Hunger Strike for Justice



By Memoria y Justicia
June 23, 2004

Physically weak and suffering from headaches and kidney pains, political prisoners Esteban Burgos, Jorge Mateluna, Hardy Pe�a and Jorge Espinola have lost between 20 and 25 kilos during 71 days on hunger strike. Despite their fragile physical condition, they are alert, in good spirits, and determined to persist until the Senate approves the Pardon Bill.

June 23 has been signaled as the "absolute deadline" for the vote, however, with the vote scheduled for today, two senators considered key to obtaining the support of the right are away from Chile.

The legislative proposal under consideration in the Senate was introduced in January 2004, after the failure of previous attempts to legislate a pardon. The bill is currently lodged in the Senate Human Rights Committee, whose members include several former military officials. Repeated delays in the Senate vote persuaded the political prisoners from the Maximum Security Prison and in other prison facilities to undertake a hunger strike April 30.

The pardon is a constitutional provision that requires a 2/3 vote from the Senators. At present, the bill has support from the 24 senators of the Concertation government coalition, lacking nine votes from the right. Senate President Sergio Romero of the right-wing UDI party has stated that he intends to vote for the measure and has called on his colleagues to follow suit. However, today both Romero and Hernan Larrain, also of the UDI, are out of Chile and will not be present for the vote. Other sectors of the right wanted to extend the pardon to military personnel sentenced for human rights violations committed during dictatorship, which the political prisoners, have refused to accept.

The legislative proposal would grant immediate parole to all political prisoners who have spent at least 10 years in prison. The 30 political prisoners have passed an average 12 years in prison. The benefit is conditioned on the commitment to renounce the use of arms.

Last night President Ricardo Lagos called on the senators of the right to make a humanitarian gesture and vote for the measure.

Many political prisoners were tried and sentenced by military courts. This departs from the norm of most countries, in which the military courts are only competent to try military personnel for military crimes. In Chile, however, the military courts may try civilians and even bring them to trial for civil crimes that are not part of the Code of Military Justice. The trial judge is a military officer who is not required even to be a lawyer, yet has authority to dictate capital sentences such as lifetime imprisonment and sentences from 5 to 15 years in prison.

Several political prisoners were tried and sentenced twice for the same crime: once by the military court and at the same time, by the civil court. The Arms Control Law and the Anti Terrorist Law, for example, cover the same crime. The Arms Control Law, enacted during dictatorship in 1980, punishes membership in "an armed combat group" and the military courts hear all proceedings. The Anti Terrorist Law, also enacted during dictatorship and amended in 1993, punishes membership in "an illicit terrorist association" and proceedings are held in civil courts. Former Justice Minister Francisco Cumplido once commented that true terrorist organizations do not exist in Chile.

On one occasion, a jurisdictional dispute arose between a civil court judge and a military judge over competency to try a political prisoner. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the military court.

Attorney Cristian Cruz, of the ODEP, noted that a prisoner named Magdalena was sentenced to 10 years in prison when she had completed 9 years in prison. "The question arises. Did the judge issue the sentence in order to justify the fact that the proceeding took 9 years? Or did she really deserve that sentence? I believe she did not. Even if the sentence were fair, the procedural delays deprived her of prison benefits that she should have been able to access years earlier, were it not for the ineptness of the military judge." "You have to wonder just what is the role of the military judge? Is it really to sentence or simply take out of circulation civilians who are rebellious and considered subversive? Whether they are innocent or guilty is irrelevant. The idea seems to be to just maintain a certain status quo until some higher court judge rules otherwise."

The Senate vote, scheduled for today has been delayed on more than one occasion, impeding the conclusion of the hunger strike for the political prisoners who now risk permanent and irreversible physical damage.


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