SANTIAGO – Several hundred protesters have been in pretrial detention ever since they were arrested during the social uprising in late 2019. As they face another Christmas behind bars, both politicians and social movements are calling upon the government to release them. On Thursday and Friday, protesters demanding the release of what they call “political prisoners” clashed with riot police in front of La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace.
Of the over 5,000 protesters arrested during and after the social uprising that took Chile by storm in the last quarter of 2019, nearly 700 have been on pretrial detention ever since their arrest. For some, this means they have been behind bars awaiting trial for 14 months.
To address this, a group of senators belonging to the Chilean opposition presented a bill last week that would give protesters detained during marches a general pardon for humanitarian reasons. According to the proposed bill, the circumstances under which these protesters were arrested were not normal, and both police and armed forces committed serious human rights violations during some of these mass arrests.
The proposal was rejected by the government. Responding to the label several social movements and opposition politicians have used for the detained, “political prisoners,” Interior Minister Rodrigo Delgado argued, “we are talking about people who threw Molotov cocktails, people who seriously violate public or private property. There is no reason to think that [any one of] these people can be called a political prisoner, where a person, as happens in several countries, is detained for speaking his mind.”
This term was also rejected by Human Rights Watch-director José Miguel Vivanco, who in an interview with CNN Chile said that “there can be no preferential treatment, especially if we are talking about serious crimes.” According to Vivanco, “there are no political prisoners in Chile, because that’s when people are persecuted for their religious beliefs, political beliefs.”
Protesters Demand Release
The current protest movement, however, is firm in its position that the government is keeping these protesters behind bars so long without trial because they were part of an uprising that severely damaged the current administration. Every week, protests continue in the heart of Santiago near the presidential palace, La Moneda; and among the primary subjects of these protests are the “political prisoners.”
After a violent protest on Thursday, Nov. 10, ended in the arson of three city buses and a bus stop, the next day 19 protesters were arrested as, at several points near the palace, barricades were set up, fires were ignited, and stores and a bank were looted. Several times, police tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas and water cannons.
One man also lost an eye during the protests on Friday. The 30-year-old was hit in the face by a projectile, while walking behind a police unit. According to Minister Delgado, the victim had not participated in any protest and an investigation is underway to find the responsible party.