Peru Out Of Human Rights Court

The Associated Press -- 9 July 1999

by David Koop

LIMA, Peru (AP) -- Peru decided to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the Organization of American States' human rights court Thursday after the tribunal ruled the country must retry four people convicted of treason.

The 66-33 vote by the government-controlled Congress angered human rights groups, which charged the decision would turn Peru into a human rights pariah and make it harder for Peruvians to find justice.

The OAS represents all the states of the Americas except Cuba -- 35 member states in all.

Many, but not all, of the OAS states have signed a pact agreeing to accept the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is affiliated to the OAS. The United States, for example, has not, but Peru had agreed to accept the court's rulings.

The court is the hemisphere's top human rights court and its rulings are considered obligatory by states that have signed the pact. By withdrawing from the court, Peru will not be able to appeal to it in the future.

President Alberto Fujimori, who has ruled with an iron fist since taking office in 1990, had proposed the bill to withdraw from the court.

Dozens of demonstrators gathered outside Congress to protest the decision, which they said was designed to head off rulings on several other cases against Peru being heard by the court.

"This decision represents a total retreat and regression from all international human rights conventions," Hernan Salgado, president of Inter-American Court of Human Rights, said in an interview with the Radioprogramas radio station. "The government is afraid of something."

The Costa Rica-based court had ruled Thursday that Peru must retry in civilian courts four Chileans convicted of terrorism by secret military courts. The four were accused of being rebels of the pro-Cuban Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.

The OAS court ruled that the 1994 military trials denied the accused due process.

The judges in the trial hid their faces by sitting behind one-way mirrors and used voice-distorting machines to further hide their identities. The measures were adopted to protect the judges from revenge attacks by rebels.

Fujimori has said that obeying the court ruling would open the door for thousands of other convicted rebels to demand new trials and threaten Peru's national security if they are released.

With the new law, Peru will recognize the court's consultative power but not be bound to follow its rulings.

But Salgado said that such a partial withdrawal from the court's jurisdiction would not be accepted.

Peru has had more OAS human rights cases filed against it than any other nation in South America, with nine out of 20 cases. It is followed by Argentina, which has had three cases.

The decision could hurt New York-native Lori Berenson's chances of winning a new trial. Berenson was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of terrorism by a military court in 1996. The court found she helped plan a thwarted attack on Peru's Congress by leftist rebels.

Her case is being heard by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, which could send it on to the OAS court if the case is judged to have merit.

Peru's internal war against leftist guerrilla groups has left 30,000 dead since 1980, but began to fall sharply in intensity after the capture of top rebel leaders in the early 1990s.