The ruling is expected to deepen a land rights dispute between indigenous villagers and a Chinese mining firm
By Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino
LIMA, April 3 (Reuters) - A Peruvian judge on Wednesday ordered three years of jail time for three lawyers representing indigenous villagers who have blockaded shipments from a massive copper mine operated by Chinese miner MMG Ltd.
The ruling, which a lead prosecutor confirmed on television news channels, promises to further polarize a dispute between MMG and the Quechua-speaking village of Fuerabamba, in Peru's southern copper belt.
Villagers have demanded that their lawyers be freed before talking with the government about lifting their blockades of two roads that have cut off access to the Las Bambas mine, halting its exports.
"I hope that the community understands we're not against them. We're against crime," prosecutor Jorge Chavez Cotrina said in comments broadcast on local TV channel RPP. "They can ask for whatever they want. But we have to act according to the law."
The prosecution argued the lawyers - the brothers Jorge and Frank Chavez, and Carlos Vargas - had manipulated Fuerabamba villagers into blocking a road used by Las Bambas to extort MMG, and must be held in jail because they are a flight risk.
Kevin Pena, the attorney for the three men, denied the accusations and said their due process was being violated.
Fuerabamba villagers have repeatedly denied that they were manipulated by the lawyers, saying they fairly represented them in their claim for compensation from MMG for transporting its copper concentrates on a road that passes through the community's farmland.
At the end of a three-day hearing in the regional capital of Cusco, Judge Patricia Valencia granted the prosecution's request to order the lawyers to 36 months in pre-trial detention while prosecutors prepare charges against them.
Fuerabamba villager Edison Vargas said the community would continue the blockades while they remained in jail. "We'll keep up the struggle 36 months. The mine will be shuttered 36 months," Vargas said in a phone message.
Fuerabamba's president, Gregorio Rojas, could not immediately be reached for comment.
MMG has said it is open to dialogue.
Las Bambas, MMG's flagship mine, is one of Peru's biggest copper producers, churning out about 400,000 tonnes in copper per year, or about 2 percent of global supply.
Only some 900 workers out of 1,900 remained at the mine on Wednesday, and more will be evacuated by helicopter in coming days, a company source told Reuters.
Production at Las Bambas "continues at progressively reduced rates," the company said in an emailed statement from its headquarters in Australia. "The situation at the site remains unchanged, inbound and outbound logistics are suspended."
MMG is controlled by state-owned China Minmetals. (Reporting By Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino)
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