Peru Courts on the Mend, Justice Still Eludes

Reuters -- 25 July 2001

by Missy Ryan

Photo of Lori sitting in a cage in the courtroom during her civilian trial.

Lima, Peru - On the streets outside Lima's sprawling law courts, Peruvians looking for cut-rate justice can pick up photocopied divorce forms to help them ``free themselves'' from blissless unions for around 30 cents.

Or they can head inside, where frayed documents are piled shoulder-high in mahogany courtrooms, and lawyers in double-breasted suits line up in icy hallways peddling their services at bargain basement rates -- $15 for a simple legal document and a mere $140 for a divorce.

But no matter the budget price -- key in a country where more than half the 26 million population is poor -- analysts say most here have precious little faith in a swamped justice system long seen as infected by political influence and greed.

``People come in really wrought up and worried,'' said courthouse lawyer Oscar Prado, who caters to those who are skeptical of state-appointed attorneys and who cannot afford to contract a more established lawyer.

``Mistrust is high because the system has been discredited, people don't know what they are going to get,'' he added.

While analysts say tarnished courts are on the road to recovery after a decade of bought judges and rigged cases under disgraced ex-President Alberto Fujimori's 10-year rule, they warn there is much left to be done.

``The justice system has long been one of Peru's least respected institutions ... and this can't be turned around overnight,'' said constitutional lawyer and former Prime Minister Javier Valle Riestra.

According to analysts, Peruvian courts were weakened by the iron-fisted Fujimori, who fled to Japan last year in the throes of a scandal triggered by a video showing his right-hand man Vladimiro Montesinos handing cash to an opposition politician.

Hundreds more tapes followed, many revealing shady deals with scores of businessmen, politicians and a swath of judges.

The ex-spy chief is now jailed pending trial on charges from embezzlement to murder. Meanwhile Fujimori, whom Peru wants to extradite, sips sake with Tokyo's elite.

``Fujimori's authoritarian government demolished democratic institutions ... and used the courts as a key tool to control enemies, the press, and to hoard wealth,'' Justice Minister Diego Garcia Sayan told Reuters.

Few resources, scant trust

``Over the last 10 years ... the problem was continuous political interference. Verdicts were unpredictable and there was a great deal of uncertainty, arbitrariness, and corruption,'' said political analyst Francisco Sagasti.

Scant resources in an overburdened system also impede the efficient administration of justice, analysts said. Most of Peru's more than 3,000 judges are overworked and underpaid, judicial sources say.

Even prestigious anti-corruption judges get only $1,300 a month and have to use Internet cafe to e-mail international colleagues. ``We're like beggars,'' said Judge Jorge Barreto.

``There are too many cases, and judges don't have time to give cases the attention they need. This is people's biggest complaint,'' Valle Riestra said.

Alberto Garcia, whose brother-in-law was given five years jail for faking a drivers' license, is at the Supreme Court to see when judges will hear the four-year-old appeal.

Toting the over-stuffed briefcase of his brother-in-law's lawyer -- whom he assists in exchange for free legal service -- he says the charges are false.

``(My brother-in-law) was hoping for justice but nothing has happened,'' Garcia said, adding his sister has been strapped to provide for the couple's two children with her husband in jail. ''He's pretty depressed and has lost most of that hope.''

Even before the mammoth Montesinos case, Peru's courts have received international scrutiny in the last year with high-profile cases such as that of American Lori Berenson, accused of aiding a leftist rebel group.

Berenson was convicted as a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and given life in jail in 1996 by a hooded military judge. A civil court retried her in case in June gave her a new 20-year sentence.

While that retrial was seen as a more transparent and balanced than her first, secret trial, a U.S.-based campaign has insisted she be freed, saying the new trial was biased.

Her case now heads to the Supreme Court for a last appeal.

Light at the end of the tunnel

But analysts say the prognosis for Peru's courts is improving, if slowly.

After Fujimori fled last November, many Peruvian judges were replaced and the Justice Ministry has since put in place a broad anti-corruption program.

``We're in the process of regaining trust and legitimacy for the justice system,'' said Garcia Sayan. ``Unfortunately people's everyday experience hasn't really changed because the system is still so slow and there is lots of low-level corruption.''

Some analysts say the hardest part -- including the Montesinos trial -- is yet to come. The first public hearing in the 37 cases that Montesinos faces is due in September.

``In the last year there have been major efforts to cleanse the system. While this doesn't mean it was fully purged, there was a lot of progress,'' Sagasti said. ``What remains to be seen is if this will be enough.''

Testimony from the former spy chief is expected to implicate more public figures and the sheer size of the case -- so far more than 50 separate cases and involving more than 200 people -- will be a tough task.

``This case could be explosive,'' said senior Judge Sergio Salas, pledging the anti-corruption judges would conduct a transparent, thorough investigation of the Montesinos regime.

``Now, in the middle of total darkness, there's a light at the end of the tunnel,'' said Garcia Sayan.

But such high-level promises to inaugurate a new era of judicial fair play have yet to trickle down for people like Serapio Montes, 57, who sits in the courthouse on an enormous bench whose faded leather seat sags from years of wear.

The small, grey-eyed farmer said he traveled 12 hours by bus from the mountain province of Ancash to appeal a conviction in a land dispute that he says could leave him with nowhere to sow his corn and potato crops.

``I had to abandon my harvest, my life,'' he said, adding that the judge who convicted him in his hometown was the nephew of the woman accusing him. In Lima, he has not yet been given a state lawyer and has gone it alone from office to office.

He says he wants the case to be heard by the Supreme Court but isn't hedging any bets he will make it to the high judges.

``To be honest, I'm doubtful of everything,'' said Montes, his faint voice quickly lost in the dim, vast hallway.