Chilean indigenous leader ends 107-day hunger strike after deal, says government

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - A Chilean indigenous leader who has spent more than 100 days on hunger strike over his detention during the coronavirus pandemic has agreed to end it after negotiations with the government, the justice minister said on Tuesday.

Celestino Cordova, a member of the Mapuche people who have fought for decades against landowners and the wood pulp industry, was jailed for 18 years in 2014 for his participation in a fatal arson attack on an elderly landowning couple.

His hunger strike sparked protests and brought attention from international human rights groups including the United Nations.

Justice Minister Hernan Larrain said he had spoken to Cordova who had agreed to end his strike in return for guarantees, including being allowed to return home for 30 hours to conduct a totem blessing ceremony important to the Mapuche people he represents.

The government was also negotiating an improvement in conditions for other jailed Mapuche people in Chile’s Araucania region, a rural, forested zone 400 miles (645 km) south of the capital, Larrain said.

“This solution shows that in the most difficult situations, dialogue is the best way, especially in an area like Araucania, where there is so much complexity and historical conflict,” he told a press conference in Santiago.

A spokeswoman for Cordova, cited by local media, quoted the machi, as Mapuche leaders are known, as saying he considered his strike to have been “a grain of sand to the struggle of the Mapuche nation.”

“The progress is not satisfactory in its entirety but I have carried out this hunger strike... with the ultimate goal of advancing step by step,” the spokeswoman, Cristina Romo, quoted him as saying.

The Cordova case - and an associated strike by more than 20 other Mapuche prisoners - has generated another headache for the centre-right government of embattled President Sebastian Pinera.

Last October saw several months of widespread social protests over inequality and more recently the government has been criticised by opposition groups for a patchy response to the economic hardship brought about by the pandemic.

The Mapuche are famous for their fierce resistance to the Spanish conquest of Chile and have struggled to claim what they deem as their ancestral land.

Cordova’s hunger strike also generated debate between legal experts about whether the hospital treating him could ethically force feed him, following a court order that doctors intervene including against his will.

Reporting by Aislinn Laing and Natalia Ramos; editing by Richard Pullin & Shri Navaratnam