Prisoners in Peru Seek a Way Out

The New York Times -- 30 March 2002

by Juan Forero

LIMA, Peru, March 26 - Condemned to life in prison for treason, Wagner Aponte was once resigned to spending the rest of his days behind bars, like hundreds of others imprisoned for joining rebel groups that waged war against the government during a 20-year conflict.

So year after year since he was convicted in 1994, he has passed the time in a prison on Lima's outskirts, reading, writing a journal and, as of late, playing the violin. But now Mr. Aponte is pleading for a retrial, arguing that special antiterrorism courts that convicted him and others under wartime laws were unjust.

"What we ask," said Mr. Aponte, who is 30, sitting on the bunk of an 8-by-4-foot cell, "is for a way out."

Prisoners like Mr. Aponte are creating a sticky problem for President Alejandro Toledo, who won election in June 2001 promising a democratic break with the decade-long authoritarian rule of Alberto K. Fujimori. About 2,200 Peruvians are in jail for participating in rebel movements, and they have begun to press the government for new trials. While acknowledging that many may have been unfairly condemned, Mr. Toledo's government faces fierce public opposition to any leniency for them.

"Public opinion is completely resistant when it comes to the situation of the terrorists," said a high-ranking official in the Interior Ministry. "Any sentiment that there has been some kind of injustice simply does not exist."

The prisoners believe that Mr. Toledo should order new trials because they were convicted by hooded judges, often on the basis of coerced testimony. Many officials concede that the arbitrary judicial system Mr. Fujimori used to prosecute the guerrillas violated the rights of thousands of them.

But the officials, along with experts on Peru's conflict, also say that many inmates convicted of treason or terrorism were rebel fighters or associates who could very well remain committed to violence. Nearly all were tied to one of Latin America's most fanatic rebel groups, the Shining Path, which tried to install a Maoist state in Peru through terror bombings and assassinations until it was largely defeated in the 1990's.

Many Peruvians believe that opening an avenue to freedom for the inmates would be a colossal mistake, invigorating a rebel group that, while weak, has been stirring. In recent months, small bands of Shining Path guerrillas have stepped up attacks on police officers in isolated regions. The group may have been responsible for the car bomb that killed nine Peruvians on March 20, just three days before President Bush arrived to meet with Mr. Toledo, officials here said.

"People are fearful of letting them out because the Shining Path almost caused the collapse of the country," said Ernesto de la Jara, director of the Legal Defense Institute, which has taken up the cause of a number of Peruvians whose terrorism convictions he says were clearly unfair.

The inmates, nearly 500 of whom are serving life terms, are determined to be heard. In February they began a nationwide hunger strike that lasted 31 days and at its height included 850 prisoners in 18 jails.

One participant was Lori Berenson, the New York woman who won a retrial after she was sentenced to a life term by a military tribunal for collaborating with rebels in a foiled plan to take over Peru's Congress. She was recently sentenced in a second trial to a 20-year term.

The inmates, communicating from prison to prison with the help of relatives, demanded retrials and political prisoner status. They called for three prisons to be closed and for a role for former rebels in a government truth commission that is investigating rights abuses during Peru's conflict. Their demands were rejected by the government.

But groups like Human Rights Watch, an American monitor, and some government officials acknowledge that the status of the inmates must, in time, be addressed. "Yes, we have to combat terrorism, but we also have to do this," said Wilfredo Pedraza, who oversees prison programs for Defender of the People, a government human rights agency. "I believe we need to punish, but to punish with legitimacy."

In recent years Peru has released more than 700 prisoners, called the innocents here, who were able to show they were unjustly convicted. Rights groups and Defender of the People estimate that perhaps 50 innocents remain imprisoned.

Of the roughly 2,200 current prisoners, hundreds who were convicted on charges of treason or terrorism were minor collaborators with the rebels. They were given harsh sentences for small-scale political advocacy or painting graffiti, said Sebastian Brett, the Peru researcher for Human Rights Watch. Many of them say they want what only Ms. Berenson has received, a retrial. "To retry does not mean they are given freedom," said Carlos Tapia, a member of the Truth Commission, created to study the justice system under Mr. Fujimori. "It means you are doing what corresponds to a democratic government."

The remaining inmates, anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 prisoners, include hard-line members of Shining Path. Even human rights groups say that some of them remain staunchly committed to the group's violent cause. They view their imprisoned leader, Abimael Guzmán, as a messiah.

Still, the families of the prisoners are mounting a spirited, if uphill, campaign to prod the government to act, organizing forums and protesting in front of the Justice Ministry.

Speaking outside Castro Castro prison near Lima, where Mr. Aponte and many others are confined, Patricia Asencio said the families were not demanding immediate freedom for jailed relatives, but retrials. "Our relatives have sentences of 20 years to life, with no chance of reincorporating into society," said Ms. Asencio, who said she was the secretary of the Association of Families of Political Prisoners and Disappeared of Peru. "But the conflict has ended, and they want to make their way back into society."

Inside the dirty peach walls of Castro Castro prison, inmates speak of how they were tortured until they signed confessions, then convicted in trials lasting only minutes before judges in hoods who did not permit cross-examination.

But several men made it clear that they were members of Shining Path and continued to believe in its cause of overturning a government they regard as capitalist and corrupt. Several inmates spoke reverently of Mr. Guzmán, referring to him by his Shining Path nom de guerre, President Gonzalo. The men acknowledge that the group committed "errors" during the conflict, but say that a vast majority of abuses took place at the hands of state security forces.

"We have had affinity and sympathy for the organization, which is called a terrorist group," explained Helmer Aponte, 28, Mr. Aponte's brother who is also serving a life sentence at Castro Castro prison. Both men said they were students working on political issues, not armed fighters, when they were tried and convicted.

Others, like Percy Mendoza, 30, said they played a role in military operations. "It was a war, and for a war, you need soldiers," Mr. Mendoza said.

But the men also say, as has Mr. Guzmán in talks with government representatives, that the conflict has ended and that the inmates, if given their freedom, would not return to violence. They say they will work through the group's political wing, the Peruvian Communist Party.

"We have two ways to go, all-out war or a political resolution," said Camilo Baras, a prisoner leader in Castro Castro. "And President Gonzalo says he wants a political resolution."