Maribel Gaete could not shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen to her son, 19-year-old Bastian Campos, when he went to a protest in Antofagasta, Chile, in November 2019.
“Police were firing teargas; you couldn’t breathe. As soon as he shut the door, I began to worry,” recalled Gaete.
At the time, Chile was seized by massive demonstrations over rising living costs and inequality, which were met with violent repression from security forces. More than 30 civilians were killed during six months of protests, hundreds blinded by anti-riot weapons, and thousands injured.
The human rights violations incited protesters’ anger, engendering a volatile and unsafe atmosphere on the streets. That night, Campos was arrested and accused of carrying ingredients to make a Molotov cocktail, along with the theft of three bottles of liquor.
Gaete maintains her son’s innocence, but Campos was convicted and sentenced to three years and 61 days. Four appeals for house arrest have been rejected.
Campos is among dozens who have spent more than a year in prison for their involvement in the protests. He contracted Covid in jail and could not receive family visits for more than 10 months last year because of pandemic restrictions.
Human rights activists argue that protesters have received excessive sentences based on meagre evidence, discriminating against the lower-income people who joined the protest movement and lack the means for legal support.
Now, a motion to pardon those imprisoned during the protests has become the topic of tense political debate in Chile as it readies for government elections in November.
Bastian Campos, who was sentenced to three years and 61 days. Photograph: Handout
Chile’s conservative president, Sebastian Piñera, maintains that jailed protesters have been rightly condemned “for serious crimes”, including attempted murder and arson as a cause of death.
But the pardons bill, which has yet to pass several approval stages to come into effect, has gained significant support among Chileans who credit the social uprising for achieving important changes in the country, namely installing a liberal and progressive constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s 1980 constitution, which was drawn up during the Pinochet dictatorship.
Gaete believes her son and other protesters helped achieve this change. “I didn’t even know what neoliberalism was until a teenager explained it to me,” she said.
In the southern Chilean city Puerto Montt, activists are rallying for the freedom of Felipe Santana, who was sentenced to seven years in jail for allegedly setting fire to a church in November 2019, when he was 19.
Santana’s defence lawyers denies his involvement in the fire, which was promptly extinguished and did not damage the property. Although there were dozens of people at the scene, Santana was the only person sentenced.
Activists say Santana is being used as a scapegoat because he has a cognitive impairment and lacks the support of a stable family unit after spending time in foster care during his childhood.
“Felipe is not the type of boy whom the institutions will care about,” said Paola Higuera, a social worker who speaks to Santana regularly. “He is invisible to them. They do not care if he spends seven or 10 years in jail.”
In February, an appeal was rejected by courts. Santana’s lawyer, Fernando Leal, wants to take the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights due to a lack of evidence, which largely relied on police testimony.
He said that the ruling is a “criminalization of the right to protest against the government” brought explicitly against people in vulnerable positions.
Meanwhile, in Antofagasta, Gaete and other mothersregularly protest outside the city’s courts.
The group recently celebrated the release of Kevin Godoy, who spent 13 months in jail. Godoy, 20, was accused of firing bullets at police officers, but charges were dropped after a video proved he was unarmed.
“It’s inhumane that a young person, in the middle of their studies or work, has to stay a year and a half in jail, so a prosecutor can then lower or drop the sentence and send them home,” said Gaete.