Peru Reveals Possible Torture Chamber

Reuters -- 14 Noveber 2000

by Rick Vecchio

LIMA, Peru - Authorities Tuesday revealed the existence of a soundproof underground interrogation center - long rumored to be a torture chamber - beneath the defunct headquarters of fugitive former spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos.

``I cannot say if it was or wasn't used for torture,'' Prime Minister Federico Salas told reporters after inspecting a system of underground cells at the National Intelligence Service complex. He had denied last month that the subterranean rooms existed.

``What I can say is that there are six cells, each measuring four-by-two meters (yards), in a basement, as well as a room that was evidently used for interrogation,'' said Salas, who heads a commission to verify the dismantling of Montesinos' feared intelligence apparatus.

Salas said he believed Oscar Ramirez Durand, leader of the violent Maoist group Shining Path, was kept in the interrogation center after his capture last year until he was convicted of treason and handed a life sentence.

Montesinos - a former power broker at the center of a scandal that prompted President Alberto Fujimori to vow to step down next year - has been in hiding since his return to Peru three weeks ago after a failed asylum bid in Panama.

An arrest order has been issued on the basis of criminal allegations ranging from directing state-sponsored death squads and torture to the laundering of more than $58 million in foreign bank accounts.

Epoca, a little-known Mexican magazine, claimed Monday to have interviewed Montesinos from an undisclosed location. It said he denied abusing human rights and claimed Fujimori had turned him into a ``sacrificial lamb.''

A leaked videotape that showed Montesinos apparently bribing a congressman prompted Fujimori to announce in September that he would step down next July after new elections. Fujimori also ordered the deactivation of the National Intelligence Service.

Explaining his earlier denial of the existence of the subterranean cells, which he described as ``comfortable,'' Salas said they not been included in any documentation provided by intelligence officials. ``The truth is I don't know if they were trying to hide it,'' he said.

Salas said an archway leading to the interrogation center had been bricked over in September by army officials who had access to the underground cells from an adjoining military installation.

Salas spoke a day after the release of a second videotape showing Montesinos - days after Fujimori won a third term in a May runoff vote marred by accusations of vote-rigging - shaking hands and embracing top military leaders at a banquet.

In a speech on the videotape, Montesinos called the military ``the basic pillar of governance and democracy in the nation,'' and congratulated his guests on their role in elections this year. He did not elaborate.

Defense Minister Carlos Bergamino, who sat at the head table with Montesinos in the video, said Tuesday that the former spymaster was referring to a military plan to prevent political extremists from causing violent disruptions during the presidential runoff vote.

Peru's opposition said the tape supported charges that the military, which is supposed to be politically neutral, played an active role in Fujimori's re-election in May.