Peru Court Strikes Down Some Fujimori Terror Laws

Reuters -- 3 January 2003

by Jude Webber (Additional reporting by Walker Simon in New York)

LIMA, Peru - In what it called "probably the most important ruling in ... its history," Peru's top court Friday struck down some of ex-President Alberto Fujimori's tough anti-terror laws -- potentially paving the way for top rebel leaders and hundreds of others to be granted retrials.

The 60-page ruling, which Court President Javier Alva Orlandini said brought Peru fully in line with international human rights requirements, came after the court's seven judges pored over the fine print of the 1992 laws for weeks.

The ruling was in response to a petition from 5,000 people -- mostly relatives of detainees -- calling for four laws to be declared unconstitutional. Full details were to be released later after the court notified the petitioners and Congress.

Although a flood of retrials was expected, the case of Lori Berenson, a New Yorker jailed in Peru for 20 years on terrorism charges, was not likely to be among them.

Fujimori, fired in 2000 at the height of a corruption scandal, signed the four legislative decrees after a so-called self-coup in 1992 in which he temporarily closed Congress.

Their draconian remit -- the laws helped give Peru one of Latin America's worst human rights records -- allowed summary trials of rebel suspects, sometimes by hooded military judges.

Fujimori, who is in self-imposed exile in Japan on the run from human rights abuse charges, defended the laws on his Web site Friday, saying they had been necessary to control the "hell" of rebel wars. Some 30,000 died and 7,000 disappeared at the hands of rebels or state forces in the 1980s and 1990s.

"We have carefully analyzed each of the norms contained within the four legislative decrees. Some clauses and some articles have been declared unconstitutional and one decree has been thrown out altogether," Alva Orlandini told reporters.

Peru has some 2,500 people jailed on terror charges but has pardoned several hundred who were wrongly imprisoned.

"No one who has been tried or sentenced will walk free ... They will have the possibility of a trial with all guarantees established by the constitution and by international treaties," Alva Orlandini said.

Court sees Berenson unaffected

The decree which was struck down allowed suspects to be tried for treason -- something Fujimori vehemently defended. "All terrorist acts are treason," he said on his Web site.

But Alva Orlandini retorted: "You don't fight terrorism with state terrorism ... I deny Fujimori the moral authority to comment on a legal system he violated with his coup."

The court also found life sentences unconstitutional but stopped short of eliminating them. Instead, it ordered Congress, which now has the task of updating Peru's anti-terror laws, to legislate for a revision of sentences after 30 years served.

The court called the ruling "probably the most important and extensive ... in its history, constituting a group of recommendations and mandates of transcendental importance."

Human rights activists and jurists say it will trigger a flood of retrials, including those of rebel leaders like Abimael Guzman, head of the Shining Path group that was one of Latin America's bloodiest insurgencies at its height and remains on an official U.S. list of terror organizations. But Alva Orlandini said he did not think it applied to Berenson, an American serving 20 years for collaboration with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA.

Berenson, 33, was jailed for life as an MRTA leader by a military court in 1996, but her conviction was overturned in 2000 and a civilian retrial last year sentenced her to 20 years for the lesser crime of terrorist collaboration. The law under which she was convicted at that trial has not been thrown out, although the court has challenged some aspects of it.

Berenson says she is innocent but Peru's Supreme Court upheld the civilian court sentence on appeal. Her case is currently before the region's top court, the Organization of American States' Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in San Jose, Costa Rica.

"It would seem that (Friday's ruling) does not modify in any way Lori Berenson's situation but in any case, her lawyer (and the San Jose court) can study the sentence to see whether it can apply to them," Alva Orlandini told Reuters.

Berensons critical

In New York, Berensons' parents called the Peru court's ruling "a grossly inadequate first step that fails to address the many criticisms of the anti-terrorism laws by the Inter-American Court, the OAS' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and other human rights groups."

The OAS commission determined last year that the anti-terror law under which Berenson was tried should be amended to comply with the Western Hemisphere-wide human rights treaty, the OAS' American Convention on Human Rights.

The Inter-American Court will hear the commission's case and Peru's arguments against it.

"We believe that Lori will be released when the Inter-American Court, based on precedence, rules on the illegality of her civilian trial," the Berensons said in a statement.

Berenson's Peruvian lawyer, Jose Luis Sandoval, has said there is a legal precedent for the Inter-American Court to order Berenson's release. He cited the case of Maria Elena Loayza, a university teacher imprisoned in 1993 after confessing under torture to being a Shining Path rebel. She was released in 1997 after a ruling by the Inter-American Court.