SANTIAGO, Chile – A Mapuche Indian who was shot in the neck during an arson attack was convicted on Thursday of killing an elderly couple in a region of southern Chile that the indigenous group claims as its ancestral territory.
The court found Celestino Cordova Transito, 27, guilty of arson and murder but said the evidence didn't constitute a terrorist act. That's a blow to the government of outgoing President Sebastian Pinera, which responded to the Jan. 4, 2013, killing by invoking an anti-terror law dating back to Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship.
President-elect Michelle Bachelet, who takes office on March 11, has said she will no longer invoke the law, though she often used during her first presidential term. The law lets suspects be held in isolation without charges and permits the use of phone taps and secret witnesses in investigations.
Prosecutors are seeking life imprisonment for Cordova, who will be sentenced on Feb. 28.
The investigation showed that a group of hooded men approached the couple's ranch at night, scattering pamphlets about the death of a Mapuche activist shot in the back by a policeman.
When the men tried to break in, Werner Luchsinger, 75, shot one trespasser in the neck. His wife, Vivian Mackay, 69, desperately telephoned her son Jorge Andres for help, as the attackers torched the house, but the couple died in the flames.
Cordova was arrested the night of the fire near the ranch with a shotgun wound to the neck. The court on Thursday called it "strong evidence" that he participated in the arson attack. No else was arrested.
"We're content that this person has been convicted. We're asking for the maximum sentence," said Jorge Andres Luchsinger.
"What we want as a family now is that all the other people who were involved in my parents' murder are placed behind bars," he said.
The couple's death triggered a national debate about the conflict in the Araucania region and the use of tough dictatorship-era measures to curb the violence.
Interior Minister Andres Chadwick on Thursday praised the conviction of Cordova, but said his ministry "will continue to insist before the courts of law that these acts constitute terrorist activities."
A U.N. special investigator urged Pinera's government last year to stop using the anti-terrorism law, arguing that Chilean prosecutors already have sufficient legal tools to investigate and punish crimes.
Ben Emmerson also called the situation "volatile" in the southern regions of Araucania and Bio Bio, where most of the nearly 1 million Mapuche live, and warned "that it could turn into a major regional conflict unless urgent action is taken to deal with the acts of violence."
A radical faction of the Mapuche has occupied and burned farms and lumber trucks to demand the return of lands. Police have also been accused of abuses, including storming into Mapuche homes during raids and shooting rubber bullets at women and children.
Mapuche means "people of the land" in the group's native Mapudungun tongue. They resisted the Spanish conquest for 300 years, but in the late 19th century, they were defeated militarily and forced into Araucania, south of the Bio Bio river, about 550 kilometers (340 miles) south of the capital.
Most live in poverty on the fringes of timber companies or ranches owned by the descendants of people who came to the region from Europe in the 1800s.