SANTIAGO – A Chilean court acquitted on Wednesday 11 Mapuche Indians of murdering an elderly couple in a January 2013 arson attack in the southern region of Araucania.
The court in the southern city of Temuco, Araucania’s capital, found the defendants not guilty in the deaths of Werner Luchsinger Lemp, 75, and his wife, Vivian Mackay Gonzalez, 69, who were burned alive inside their rural home.
The judges ruled that prosecutors had failed to prove the defendants had set the fire on Jan. 4, 2013, and argued that testimony by their main witness was contradictory and legally tainted.
The defendants included Francisca Linconao, a Mapuche shaman (religious authority) who was accused of allowing her home to be used for the planning of the attack on the couple’s home near Temuco.
The family’s attorney, Carlos Tenorio, said he would consider appealing the verdict but would wait for the court to issue its final ruling on Nov. 14.
He had earlier criticized the judge’s decision to reclassify the charges as fire resulting in death as opposed to terrorism.
Deputy Interior Secretary Mahmud Aleuy, for his part, urged all concerned to abide by the court’s decision and defended the work of the Attorney General’s Office.
Conservative presidential candidate Sebastian Piñera, however, slammed the ruling, calling it a disaster for Chile and saying that President Michelle Bachelet’s administration and the judiciary had failed in their duty to uphold the rule of law.
“A crime so heinous as to have burned alive an elderly couple with unimaginable cruelty warranted that those responsible be held accountable,” said Piñera, Chile’s head of state from 2010-2014.
Another Mapuche shaman, Celestino Cordova Transito, was convicted in early 2014 of participating in the arson attack and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The Interior Ministry had unsuccessfully sought in that earlier case to have the crime classified as terrorism.
Mapuche Indian militants have torched vehicles, highway toll booths and lumber shipments in a bid to reclaim lands lost during a late-19th-century “pacification” campaign against the indigenous people of southern Chile.
The conflict has claimed the lives of Mapuche activists, police and farmers, while dozens of indigenous people have been sent to prison, mainly for crimes against property.
Mapuches make up around 650,000 of Chile’s 17 million people and are concentrated in Araucania and greater Santiago.