Hundreds unjustly jailed for terrorism in Peru

Reuters -- 23 January 1996

[This article has been excerpted]

After her arrest by Peruvian anti-terrorist police in early 1993, Carmen was blindfolded, beaten, hung from the ceiling, shocked with electricity and tortured by near-drowning.

Accused of belonging to the Maoist Shining Path guerrilla group and handed to the army to await trial before a ''faceless'' military judge on terrorism charges, she said she was beaten daily and raped before being sentenced to 30 years.

``To know the military court is to know hell,'' said Carmen, who asked that her real name not be used. She spent nearly two years in jail before being found innocent on appeal and freed.

Carmen's case is not unique. Human rights groups estimate that between 700 and 1,000 innocent people have been charged and convicted since President Alberto Fujimori decreed draconian anti-terrorism laws in 1992 at the height of a war against leftist rebels.

While media attention has focused on the plight of Lori Berenson, an American who virtually admitted ties to Peruvian guerrillas before being convicted of treason by a military court and handed a life sentence Jan. 11, those wrongly accused have been largely ignored.

The laws instituted life prison terms, sent terrorism cases to secret courts before anonymous judges, gave the military jurisdiction over ``aggravated terrorism'' or treason cases and allowed those acquitted by the military to be retried in civilian court for the same alleged crimes.

The state also passed a so-called repentance law, granting freedom or reduced terms to rebels who implicated others.

Authorities say the laws enabled security forces to lock up thousands of Shining Path and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) rebels, stemming violence that has left 30,000 dead and caused $25 billion in damage since 1980. Courts have convicted thousands for terrorism over the years. Especially notorious are military tribunals, which have tried 1,565 suspects since 1992 and have a 97 percent conviction rate.

Humberto Rivera, spokesman for the Supreme Council of Military Justice, said some want to scrap the summary military trials due to a sharp drop in rebel attacks but the military wants them maintained ``as a permanent deterrent.''

Congressman Daniel Espichan of Fujimori's party, former special prosecutor for terrorism cases, said 1992 was the ''hardest stage'' of the war. ``Car-bombings, public executions. Terrorists controlled the shantytowns around Lima,'' he said. ''There was a moment when it looked like we were lost.''

He acknowledges ``more than 100'' cases of apparent wrongful imprisonment and adds ``there have been some mistakes'' in applying the laws. But he blames ``bad judges,'' not the laws themselves, and insists the cases will be reviewed.

The legislation, he said, was key to crushing the rebels.

But it also has a darker legacy. Preliminary figures from Peru's National Human Rights Coordinator say 999 people have been unjustly charged with terrorism or treason since 1992 and 127 remain jailed. Many detainees claim they were tortured or raped. Most lost jobs, spent months or years behind bars, suffered alienation from family and friends or developed health problems. Meanwhile, 611 people already absolved of terrorism, including Carmen, face arrest and retrial due to flaws in their cases.

Police and justice officials declined to be interviewed on the subject. But rights groups say the laws allow arbitrary arrests, strip suspects of basic due process rights and were created to punish accused rebels swiftly, not find the truth or mete out justice.

``I've gone to trials that lasted an hour: accusation, defense and sentencing. Some cases include more than 100 people,'' said lawyer Ronald Gamarra of the Institute of Legal Defense, which specializes in rights cases. He estimates a third of those arrested for terrorism are innocent, including hundreds detained on false or coerced testimony by repentant rebels.

Hubert Lanssiers, a Belgian priest who is Peru's prison chaplain, said unjust convictions urgently need revision due to harsh prison conditions faced by convicted rebel suspects. At Lima's Miguel Castro Castro maximum security prison, they are locked up three to a 9-by-9 foot cell, with half an hour a day to stroll around a prison patio. Tuberculosis and other illnesses abound, food is poor and prisoners often suffer claustrophobia and depression, he said.

``If this goes on for a long time, we're going to have the biggest madhouse in Peru,'' said Lanssiers, adding that even among admitted rebels sentences often far exceed the magnitude of the crimes.

Espichan, a member of Congress's Human Rights Commission, said legislators are seeking a way for the truly innocent to avoid retrial. But those facing renewed arrest, like Carmen, see themselves caught in a legal nightmare without end.

``Sometimes at night the only thing that invades my thoughts is everything that happened after my arrest, everything I've gone through,'' she said. ``I don't know when this page of the book will be turned.'' --