Last week multiple Chilean news sources reported that Garbeila Blas, an Aymara woman sentenced to twelve years for the death of her son, is likely to be pardoned by President Piñera in the upcoming weeks. As it stands now, Chile’s Comptroller General’s office is reviewing the case and has to sign off on the President’s decision before it can become official. Since the news broke, Blas’s attorney has called for an immediate pardon and release of her client citing due process and human rights violations in her initial conviction. If the pardon is realized, it will be Chile’s first pardon of an indigenous person.
In recent months, Blas’s case has been in the news as Chile’s Institute for Human Rights described the case in a recent report, citing human rights violations in Blas’s treatment. Additionally, multiple Chilean politicians have requested that the President pardon Blas stating that the Chilean courts failed to take into account her culture when they convicted her and submitted her to certain procedures.
Blas is an Aymara woman who has spent her whole life — before prison — tending animals in a highlands (altiplano) of northern Chile. She lives 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.
When Blas was finally taken to trial, she ultimately ended up with a 12-year sentence. 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. The most common example is that of a Chilean woman who works at a nursery and left a child strapped in a car in the hot sun. The child was killed, and the woman received a one-year sentence. In addition, ILO Convention 169 — which is now part of Chilean law — requires courts to take into consideration traditional indigenous practices and traditional indigenous concepts of justice, when applicable, and to draw from those values when deciding how to act. The Convention specifically discusses considering non-jail options when indigenous values differ from those of the state.
We will continue to track this story and will update on whether Blas is, in fact, pardoned when such information becomes available.