On Friday, October 14th, the Chilean Chamber of Deputies (equivalent to the U.S. House of Representatives) voted to ask President Piñera to pardon Gabriela Blas, an Aymara woman who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the accidental death of her son. The draft agreement was brought to the floor by Deputy Orlando Vargas (PPD) and received 54 votes in favor as well as one abstention. The agreement not only requested a pardon, but provided legal arguments to support such a decision.
The Deputies’ vote was supported by a large number of Aymara communities and leaders throughout northern Chile. These communities have worked hard to make the story of Gabriela Blas known so that she may be released from prison. Blas is a 28-year-old Aymara woman who had spent her whole life — before prison — tending animals in the highlands (altiplano) of northern Chile. She lived in an area where there are no daycares, no babysitters, nor even preschools. The tradition in that region — a tradition that Blas learned growing up — includes taking one’s children out into the fields to help tend with the animals. In July of 2007, Blas left her son inside their home briefly as she went to find some animals who had wandered off that day. When she returned, her son was missing. She searched for him for days and, ultimately, he was found dead and Blas was arrested.
Blas was deemed a “threat to society” and placed into solitary confinement for the first five months of her detention. She would go on to spend almost 1000 days in prison before actually standing trial. During this time, she lost custody of her other two children and to this day does not know where her youngest daughter (just a few months of age at the time of the incident) was taken. Ultimately, once the trial process was completed, Blas was sentenced to twelve years in prison.
The court’s decision has been widely criticized for its disproportionate sentencing and failure to take into account ILO Convention 169 and similar legal principles on indigenous rights. Critics have often noted that non-indigenous caretakers who have been responsible for children who have died have received far less substantial penalties.
During this past August — around the time of the four-year anniversary of the day Blas lost her son — Deputies Vargas and Adriana Muñoz (PPD) joined in the fight to get Blas released and asked the President to pardon her. The decision to have a vote on this issue was a continuation of that fight. Vargas indicated that he believes the trial was not fair that convicted Blas, but that there are additional legal arguments — including the fact that she has now served more than 30% of her sentence — to justify clemency. Despite the Chamber’s efforts, there was no immediate response from the President on the issue.