SANTIAGO, Chile — A United Nations investigator on Tuesday urged Chile's government to stop using an anti-terrorism law against Mapuche Indians who are fighting to recover their ancestral land.
Violence in the Mapuche struggle escalated last year with a string of arson attacks, including one that killed an elderly couple. Their deaths shocked Chileans and raised questions about the inability of President Sebastian Pinera's government to meet the demands of Chile's largest indigenous group and his administration's vow to continue using tough dictatorship-era measures to curb violence.
Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special investigator on human rights and counter-terrorism, said the situation is "volatile" in the southern regions of Araucania and Bio Bio, where most of the nearly 1 million Mapuche live.
Speaking after a two-week visit to Chile, he warned "that it could turn into a major regional conflict unless urgent action is taken to deal with the acts of violence."
He said Chilean prosecutors have enough legislation "at their disposal to investigate and punish crimes" without the need to use the terrorism law that dates from Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 1973-90 dictatorship.
"The anti-terrorist legislation has been used in a way that discriminates against the Mapuche. It has been applied in a confusing and arbitrary way, which has turned into a real injustice that has impaired the right to a fair trial. And it has been perceived as stigmatizing and delegitimizing of the Mapuche territorial demands and protests," Emmerson said.
There was no immediate response from Chile's government.
Emmerson said Chile should come up with a strategy to solve the dispute, recognize the Mapuche under the constitution and speed up the return of their lands.
"The preliminary conclusions of the U.N. official go along with what we've been saying: that there's no terrorism and that this is a disproportionate law that only creates more tensions," said Aucan Huilcaman, a Mapuche leader.
"If Chile really wants to show its democratic side it must recognize the Mapuche people," Huilcaman added.
A radical faction of the Mapuche have occupied and burned farms and lumber trucks to demand the return of lands. Werner Luchsinger, 75, and wife, Vivian Mackay, 69, were killed last year when attackers torched their home in the heart of the indigenous land conflict. The only man arrested for the crime is a Mapuche.
Police have also been accused of violent abuses, including storming into Mapuche homes during raids and shooting rubber bullets indiscriminately at women and children.
Emmerson, who was invited to Chile by Pinera's government, said the Andean country must put an end to violence by police against the Mapuche.
Members of the Mapuche have gone on lengthy hunger strikes to protest the anti-terror legislation. Human rights groups say the law is abusive because it allows for suspects to be held in isolation without charge and for the use of secret witnesses and telephone taps.
The Mapuche, which means "people of the land" in their native Mapudungun language, resisted the Spanish conquest for 300 years and their desire for autonomy remains strong. It wasn't until the late 19th century that they were defeated militarily and forced into Araucania, south of the Bio Bio river, about 550 kilometers (342 miles) south of the capital.
Most live in poverty on the fringes of timber companies or ranches owned by the descendants of those who arrived to the region in the late 1800s from Europe.
Associated Press writer Luis Andres Henao contributed to this report.