The fight for freedom: Mother in Chile relentlessly battles to free her son Nicolás

On February 12, 2021, my son and I joined Chilean protests to demand freedom for political prisoners. The situation escalated quickly. Police vehicles burst into flames, sparking a chaotic experience.

  • 4 months ago
  • December 27, 2023
6 min read
Paola, Chilean advocate and mother, holding a protest banner in her efforts to free her son Nicolás Piña, whom she says is a political prisoner. | Photo courtesy Paola Palomera Paola, Chilean advocate and mother, holding a protest banner in her efforts to free her son Nicolás Piña, whom she says is a political prisoner. | Photo courtesy Paola Palomera
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Paola Palomera is a resilient Chilean mother and advocate tirelessly working for her son Nicolás Piña’s release since his imprisonment in 2021. Her determined efforts through protests and collaboration with similarly affected families have made her a significant voice for political prisoners’ rights in Chile. Learn more about Paola’s advocacy. The story here is her rendition of and reflections on the events that took place leading to and resulting in her son’s conviction. Piña is an engineer, husband, and father.
background information
In 2019, Chile witnessed the social outbreak, a massive wave of protests starting October 18, as citizens demanded justice and dignity, leading to widespread unrest.

The aftermath saw numerous protesters in 2021 asking for the political prisoner’s freedom. Nicolás Piña, son of Paola Palomera, was detained and labeled a by some as a “Political Prisoner.” These detentions have been criticized for their lack of due process and prolonged pre-trial detentions, with many cases like Piña’s still ongoing or in the appeal process.

SANTIAGO, Chile — The first week of February 2021 crackled with tension, highlighted by the mysterious deaths of three Chilean protesters. On February 12, my son and I went to Plaza Dignidad, a known location for public demonstrations, to join others in demanding the release of political prisoners. The air felt heavy, and the people were apprehensive as the police behaved erratically.

When the police arrested my son Nicolás during the demonstration it shocked our family deeply. This set off a flurry of financial and emotional strain in our battle for his freedom. After navigating the justice system, Nicolás was finally released from pretrial detention in March 2021. Yet, he still faced trial, which took place this September. The court sentenced him to 10 years, a verdict largely based on the testimonies of undercover officers.

This nearly three-year battle transformed me into a dedicated human rights defender and a diligent investigator, now fighting tirelessly for justice for Nicolás and others trapped in this relentless system.

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Fighting for justice: the battle to free Nicolás

On February 12, 2021, my son and I joined Chilean protests to demand freedom for political prisoners. The situation escalated quickly. Police vehicles burst into flames, sparking a chaotic experience. Amidst this tumult, my son Nicolás and I encountered a sudden attack by two aggressors. Shortly after, a group mistook Nicolás for an undercover officer and brutally assaulted him before abducting him in a van. I stood alone, shocked and overwhelmed as they whisked my son away.

After his arrest, Nicolás spent 13 months and six days in preventive detention, compelling me to dedicate myself entirely to his release. I left my job and sought psychological support for myself and my grandchildren as we faced the ordeal. 

My campaign for his freedom took many forms: hunger strikes, dramatic protests from bridges, chaining myself at the cathedral, and ensuring his face was visible everywhere. I rode through the streets with his photo, lifted banners during marches, and advocated tirelessly for his and other prisoners’ freedom. Our rallying cry, “We are not all here, Nicolás is missing,” became a symbol of our struggle.

Seeing Nicolás suffer in prison, especially with the inadequate vegetarian meals, pained me deeply. The prison’s poor diet led to his noticeable weight loss, a distressing sight for any parent. I shielded him from additional stress by keeping external and familial issues from our conversations.

Despite these hardships, I found comfort and solidarity with other prisoners’ families, forming a close-knit community. Nicolás remained resilient, taking refuge in sports and the prison’s modest library. He excelled in chess and continued his intellectual pursuits, sustaining his spirit against the odds. Through adversity, our bond grew stronger, and our determination never faltered.

The financial and emotional battle took its toll, exhausting my savings and piling up steep bail and legal fees. I reached out to the community, seeking support. However, this brought to light the heavy financial burden families often endure, leaving us depleted and desperate.

This journey through the justice system didn’t just showcase a mother’s love. It also laid bare the stark challenges families face in fighting for their loved one’s rights and dignity. During a crucial phase of Nicolás’s legal fight, a precautionary measure shifted the battle. Our legal team successfully invoked international law.

As a result, the hearings went public amidst intensified social pressure. The court conditionally reduced Nicolás’s bond from 40 million to 20 million pesos, marking a significant turning point. Despite the high stakes, we pledged my mother’s house as collateral for the bond. Ultimately, our perseverance led to Nicolás’s release from preventive detention on March 18, 2022.

Paola and her son, Nicolás, reunited prior to the verdict. | Photo courtesy Paola Palomera

Reuniting with Nicolás filled us with indescribable joy. He eagerly reconnected with friends and delighted in the comforts of home, particularly his beloved book collection. His newfound appreciation for simple joys, like his mattress, underscored the brutal deprivations of prison life.

Three months later, Nicolás moved forward, taking up a mathematics teaching position and advancing his studies. Despite the shadow of the ongoing trial, he immersed himself in work and learning, gaining immense satisfaction. 

Beyond a mother’s love: confronting the flawed Chilean justice system

The trial commenced on September 25, 2023, and wrapped up quickly in just 10 days. We listened intently as 33 Chilean individuals, including experts and police officers, gave their testimonies. These heart-wrenching testimonies laid bare the surveillance and infiltration at the protests. 

The court sentenced Nicolás to 10 years, primarily based on contentious undercover officer accounts. Yet, no expert could conclusively link him to the crime. Our family took the verdict as a shocking hit, filling our hearts with pain. Tears flowed from everyone’s eyes as we embraced Nicolás, struggling to accept the verdict.

We are now appealing to the Chilean Supreme Court, hopeful for progress by June 2024. Our goal is clear: a fair trial that remedies what we view as the initial punitive sentence. Through this three-year ordeal, I’ve become a fierce human rights defender and researcher, diving into evidence and legalities to fight this complex battle.

Recently, I also faced detainment at a protest alongside other activists. This experience was terrifying and enlightening. It showed the daunting challenges of seeking justice, galvanizing my determination. This journey, filled with personal sacrifice and a fight against a relentless system, has only strengthened our family’s resolve. As we await the Supreme Court’s review, our spirit remains unbroken, fueled by the hope for justice and a better tomorrow. 

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