(Temuco, Chile) — The acquittal today in southern Chile of seven Mapuche defendants and a non-Mapuche sympathizer charged under Pinochet-era counterterrorism laws is a victory for justice and moderation, Human Rights Watch said today. At the trial, which ended today, a court in Temuco concluded unanimously that the evidence was too weak to sustain charges of illicit terrorist association against the defendants, members of an indigenous community affected by longstanding land conflicts.

“The court acted with laudable independence and impartiality in reaching this verdict, given the huge legal resources deployed against the Mapuche defendants,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. “We hope the attorney general’s office learns a lesson from this verdict and desists from such terrorism prosecutions in the future.”

The eight defendants were accused of forming an illegal association to commit acts of terrorism in order to resolve land conflicts in favor of the indigenous Mapuche community. None of the alleged crimes involved a direct threat to life. The Mapuche were defended by attorneys from the Public Defender’s Office, a body created under Chile’s new Code of Criminal Procedure that provides skilled counsel at no cost to those unable to hire a lawyer.

Among those testifying for the prosecution were at least six so-called faceless witnesses (testigos sin rostro) whose identity was concealed from the defendants and their lawyers, and who appeared in the courtroom behind screens and with voice-distorting microphones. In a report published on October 27, Human Rights Watch described how the use of “faceless witnesses” violates due process norms protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Under Chile’s new Code of Criminal Procedure, enacted in Temuco in 2000, the prosecution and the victims can ask the Supreme Court to annul a trial on grounds that their rights were not respected. In a 2003 case involving three of today’s defendants, the Supreme Court annulled their acquittal following a request by the prosecution and the victims, and ordered a retrial. Two of them were convicted in a second trial and sentenced to jail terms of five years for “terrorist threats.”

In its recent report, Human Rights Watch explained that the application of antiterrorism laws to common crimes like those in this case was unjustified and disproportionate. The report pointed out that antiterrorism laws are harsh because of the exceptional seriousness of the crimes they cover, and that they should never be applied to crimes of lesser gravity.

The law under which the defendants were tried was enacted by Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1984 to confront growing armed resistance to his rule. Under new provisions of the law later introduced under elected governments, crimes of arson may be considered terrorist actions when intended to “spread fear in the population or part of it,” even if they do not constitute a direct threat to life, liberty or physical integrity.