Chile’s controversial anti-terrorism law became a major talking point for presidential candidates as the country nears elections after front-runner Michelle Bachelet spoke out against the law’s application in a widely publicized arson case which resulted in two deaths.
Speaking at a campaign stop in the Araucanía Region on Friday, Bachelet said that Chile does not need to use the anti-terrorism law to prosecute crimes, including the arson and resulting death of two elderly landowners Werner Luchsinger (75) and his wife Vivianne Mackay (69) in January.
“The murder of the Luchsinger-Mackay couple was a horrible act but I believe that Chile has sufficient legislation for all murders: those that happen here in Araucanía, in Providencia or in Arica. We don’t need the anti-terrorism law,” Bachelet said.
While the southern region has seen conflict for years as the local indigenous Mapuche population continues to protest and confront authorities as part of a movement to regain ancestral lands and various political rights, the Luchsinger-Mackay case stood out for its seemingly defenseless victims and the media furor it instigated.
The couple burned to death in their house in the southern town of Vilcún following an arson attack. The only suspect in the case, Celestino Córdova, a Mapuche activist, was arrested fleeing the scene, apparently carrying pamphlets memorializing another Mapuche man killed by police five years earlier. Córdova is being charged under the anti-terrorism law.
Various human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the United Nations have called on Chile to stop using the law, which is almost exclusively used against Mapuche activists. U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism, Ben Emmerson, visited Chile in July to assess the controversial legislation and determined that the country must immediately stop its application.
“The anti-terrorism law has been used in a manner that discriminates against the Mapuche,” Emmerson said. “It has been applied in a confused and arbitrary fashion that has resulted in real injustice, has undermined the right to a fair trial and has been perceived as stigmatizing and de-legitimizing the Mapuche land claims and protests.”
This is not the first time Bachelet has spoken out against the anti-terrorism law, legislation she herself invoked while serving as president. In an interview with The Clinic in April she said she would never again invoke the law adding that she regrets some of her actions as head of state.
“In no case [should the law have been used]. That was a mistake. My government presented a bill to modify the anti-terrorism law but it didn’t succeed in parliament,” she said.
Those on the other side of the political spectrum have been quick to criticize Bachelet’s recent comments, saying she is downplaying the crime committed and insulting the family of the victims.
Andrés Chadwick, interior minister and member of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party, was quick to point out Bachelet applied the anti-terrorist law more harshly than it is being applied in the Luchsinger-Mackay case.
“When she was president, she applied the anti-terrorism law four times in the Araucanía Region, including cases that did not result in deaths,” Chadwick said Friday.
“In the case of Luchsinger-Mackay, where there is a couple, an elderly husband and wife who were brutally murdered, charred, burned along with their home, when a group orchestrated and organized this, without any mercy, for Michelle Bachelet to maintain that it is not necessary to apply the anti-terrorism law — or that the cruel and dramatic murder of Luchsinger and Mackay is not an act of terrorism — is deeply wrong.”
Senator Alberto Espina of the center-right National Renewal (RN) party has been outspoken about his opposition to Bachelet’s comments.
“Are you going to tell me this is a common crime? How is this not a terrorist act?” the senator said over the weekend. “What are we to do if faced with an act of terrorism? If the terrorist offence is to terrorize, intimidate, pursue and, in the case of Luchsinger-Mackay, [the culprits] intended to intimidate, pursue, to assault two elderly people who had done nothing but create work in the area and who had no conflict with anyone — and then flee from the area.”
Evelyn Matthei, Bachelet’s presidential election competition from the conservative Alianza coalition sent a statement to Cooperativa stating her firm stance in support of the anti-terrorist legislation.
“Terrorists, criminals, continue to create terror, continue to kill and because of them we continue to apply strong penalties,” Matthei said. “I want to tell everyone that, yes, I will apply [the anti-terrorism law] and no I will not waver from doing so.”
Dep. Osvaldo Andrade, president of the Socialist Party (PS), defended fellow party member Bachelet.
“The cruelty in this is the wrongful use of a horrible murder like the case of the Luchsinger-Mackay couple, for political ends,” Andrade said. “The treatment of the Mapuche issue is something that we should draw everyone’s attention to and that it is not going to be resolved through the application of a law that goes against due process and the rights of the accused.”
Other presidential candidates have spoken out against the controversial law including Progressive Party (PRO) candidate Marco Enriquez-Ominami and center-right independent candidate Franco Parisi.
Enríquez-Ominami also said regular laws are good enough to handle crimes currently labeled as terrorism by the state.
“We are against the application of the anti-terrorism law, because as it is being applied today, it is made to discriminate and criminalize the Mapuche community,” he said.
However, he was not defending Bachelet, who he criticizes for opposing the law now after using it when she had power.
“It pained me that Michelle Bachelet had not heard the cry of the United Nations and of its members that said it was a terrible mistake to apply the anti-terrorism law,” Enríquez-Ominami said.
Parisi addressed the issue months ago when visiting the Araucanía Region in January.
“Violence in any region is not O.K. and I hope that the law can judge all acts of violence from both sides,” Parisi said. He added that the anti-terrorism law “has demonstrated that it serves no purpose, in all cases it has no impact.”
On Monday the courts decided to throw out the request by the defense to delay the trial of Celestino Córdova because of a change in representation. The preliminary hearings of the Luchsinger-Mackay arson-murder case will take place Tuesday.
By Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis - Santiago Times