Jailed Argentine Indigenous leader Milagro Sala, dubbed the first political prisoner of President Mauricio Macri’s administration, refuses to testify after more than five months in prison, claiming that justice will only bend to the “whims” of the provincial governor who ordered her arrest.
Sala, founder and leader of the 70,000-member Tupac Amaru political organization, faces charges over the misuse of public funds destined for social housing construction in the northwest province of Jujuy where she was arrested in January. The accusations of fraud were only leveled against her two weeks after her arrest, ordered by Jujuy Governor Gerardo Morales, when the initial charges of inciting violence were dropped.
“They can invent another 2,000 cases against me, but I am not going to respond to this justice that depends in a direct way on the whims of Governor Morales,” Sala said in a statement from the Alto Comedero prison in Jujuy.
“Both I and my colleagues have been deprived of our freedom because someone said that we did something that we didn’t do,” Sala continued. “As long as constitutional guarantees, due process, and the right to defense are not respected, I am not going to respond to this judicial power that serves as an office of (Morales’ party) the Radical Committee.”
Former two-term Jujuy governor and Morales’ predecessor, Eduardo Fellner, a member of former Presidents Cristina Fernandez and Nestor Kirchner’s Justicialist Party, also stands accused alongside Sala in the corruption charges. Morales, on the other hand, is a Macri ally and his Radical party is part of the president’s conservative coalition Cambiemos.
Sala was arrested in Jujuy on Jan. 16 after staging a month-long sit-in against Morales’ neoliberal policies alongside other activists. Numerous prominent human rights defenders and organizations have slammed her arrest as illegal, calling her a victim of political persecution, and the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also joined calls for her release.
Charges of inciting crime and turmoil were dropped on Jan. 29, but before she could be released a new warrant was handed down for charges of illicit association, fraud, and extortion. She has remained in prison ever since as investigations continue, barring her from taking up her seat as a representative in Parlasur, the parliament of the South America subcontinental bloc Mercosur.
The only evidence presented in the case are testimonies from nine witnesses who came forward in a so-called “spontaneous” manner in January, according to Sala’s Tupac Amaru organization, and testified about events that allegedly took place between 2012 and 2015.
She has also been accused of cover-up, attempted murder, and kidnapping a baby, according to Tupac Amaru, with witnesses as the only form of evidence.
In her statement, Sala and her organization vowed to continue denouncing her illegal detention in the face of a “daily accumulation of irregularities” in the legal process that appear to have the “sole purpose of sustaining a story that Gerardo Morales has promoted for years without any legally valid proof.” According to the conservative Argentine newspaper La Nacion, Morales has had a tense and “estranged” relationship with Sala for years.
Sala’s arrest is one example of a reported rise in violent intimidation, torture, and arbitrary detention of local activists at the hands of security forces in Jujuy since Morales came to power as governor late last year.