Legacy of Terror Crackdown Haunts Peru

Associated Press -- 9 January 2003

by Drew Benson

LIMA, Peru - Vincente Janampa was 18 when leftist rebels shot his uncle at the rural schoolhouse where he taught in the Ayacucho region high in the Andes.

Eighteen years later, Janampa worries that recent legal reforms induced by international pressure could free hundreds of the rebels, who were imprisoned in a crackdown that helped suffocate a civil war that left 30,000 dead in the 1980s and early 1990s.

"There are still followers out there in the countryside, and the terrorists could go back out preaching their doctrine," said Janampa, a city groundskeeper who now lives in Lima. "They should stay in prison."

Peru is having to deal with the legal legacy of the crackdown after a constitutional court on Friday struck down parts of the anti-terror laws used by former President Alberto Fujimori to crush Peru's leftist guerrilla insurgencies.

The Constitutional Tribunal ruled against the use of secret military courts with hooded judges and the harsh sentences they dished out to terrorists and collaborators. The ruling came in response to recommendations from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the legal arm of the Organization of American States.

The ruling could open the way for new trials for 900 people sentenced by military courts, including Shining Path rebel founder Abimael Guzman. Nearly 2,000 people are imprisoned on terrorism charges.

Legal experts say the ruling is unlikely to affect the case of New York native Lori Berenson, who was sentenced to life in prison by a military court in 1996 for a failed plot to attack Peru's Congress but was later retried in a civilian court and given a 20-year sentence on the lesser charge of collaboration. She says both trials denied her due process.

In a nationally televised address Tuesday, President Alejandro Toledo tried to allay Peruvians' concerns that rebels would walk free and asked Congress for powers to create new anti-terrorism laws. Lawmakers granted his request on Wednesday.

"The only thing the constitutional court has done is comply with an international legal ruling - it in no way opens the doors to free terrorists," Toledo said.

But some former judges disagreed.

"I have heard the president say he will not free any terrorists and it is not so - he is wrong," said former anti-terrorism judge Marcos Ibazeta.

Ibazeta said if there is not sufficient evidence to stand up in a civilian court, judges will be forced to free imprisoned rebels.

Peru's bogged-down, inefficient legal system may also have trouble bringing 900 people to trial in the 18- to 36-month time limit required by law. If it fails to do so, many guerrillas could walk.

Even before the ruling, petitions for new trials had begun to pile up. Judge Pablo Talavera, president of the National Anti-terrorism Court said about 400 detainees had asked for new trials before Friday's decision. He expects the number to double in the coming months.

The draconian anti-terrorism laws were decreed by Fujimori beginning in 1992 and included the creation of courts with masked judges to protect magistrates from rebel reprisals. The measures were initially popular with Peruvians weary of war, but they later drew criticism for allegedly denying defendants fair trials.

Raul Gonzalez, a sociologist who has studied Peru's war with the Shining Path, said the authoritarian measures were a political solution for a legal system in which judges, under threats of retribution, rarely convicted rebel defendants.

"At the time, the country didn't know what to do. The judiciary didn't know what to do," he said.

"I'm sure that in 10 years many people will condemn President Bush for his decision to use military courts to try terrorists, but nobody can ignore the context," he said.

By the early 1990s, the Maoist Shining Path had virtually driven the Peruvian government to its knees with a campaign of car bombings, political assassinations and massacres of peasant communities that refused to support it.

Guzman's capture in 1992 and the anti-terrorism measures helped quash the guerrillas.

But in 1999, the inter-American court ruled that four Chileans jailed on terrorism charges should receive a new trial in an open civilian court. The court said that civilians could not be tried in military courts, that Peru's definition of terrorism was too vague and that life sentences for terrorism were too severe.

In response, Fujimori withdrew Peru from the international court.

Fujimori acknowledged that some innocent people may have been found guilty and earlier in 1996 had set up a commission that identified and released more than 600 people jailed for terrorism.

After Fujimori's 10-year authoritarian government collapsed in a corruption scandal in 2000, Peru returned to the inter-American court's jurisdiction.

The Chileans were granted a new trial.

Justice Minister Fausto Alvarado said Peruvians should accept the new trials as a price of democracy.

"The alternative is to ignore rulings by these (international) tribunals that Peru has signed on with ... converting us into an island," he said.