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LIMA, Sep 6 2006 (IPS) - The case of a Supreme Court justice in Peru caught red-handed taking a 300 dollar bribe has shaken the country, as the magistrate was sitting on the chamber of the Court that is to try former president Alberto Fujimori, whose regime was riddled with corruption.
Eduardo Palacios, a provisional Supreme Court magistrate who less than a year ago made the news by acquitting Fujimori (1990-2000) of one of the many charges against him, was nabbed by the police Monday after pocketing a bribe of 1,000 soles (307 dollars) from a litigant.
Palacios is accused of asking former police officer Wilfredo Ipanaqué for money in exchange for helping him in a trial in which he was seeking reinstatement to the police force.
The former police officer’s case was not being handled by Palacios himself, but by the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court.
After Palacios requested an under-the-table payment, Ipanaqué decided to report him to the police, who along with the anti-corruption prosecutors office organised a sting operation, in which the judge was seized in his office with marked bills in his pocket. The money had just been handed to him by Ipanaqué.
Besides paying off Palacios, the former police officer paid 400 soles (123 dollars) to Gloria Ludeña, a secretary in the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber. The arrested magistrate apparently had ties to the justices in that chamber.
The authorities filmed the entire operation, in which Palacios pulled out of his pockets the marked bills, which amounted to a paltry sum compared to his monthly paycheck equivalent to 5,538 dollars. The Lima daily La República titled its front-page article on the case “Supreme Court Judge Sells Out Cheap”.
In the video recording, the judge can be seen resisting being pulled out of his office.
“I just wanted justice, and I had to do this because corruption is not acceptable,” Ipanaqué told reporters as he headed to the police station to testify.
The president of the Supreme Court, Walter Vásquez Vejarano, told reporters that “This is a devastating blow to the justice system. I am aghast.”
The arrest came at a bad time for the judiciary, which had dismissed a request by the president of Congress, Mercedes Cabanillas, that the magistrates follow the example of top representatives of the executive and legislative branches and reduce their salaries, as part of a package of austerity measures.
Vásquez Vejarano himself argued against the proposal, saying the justice system is autonomous and follows its own rules.
However, by law, Supreme Court magistrates in Peru are supposed to earn the same as legislators.
The case also coincides with a campaign by the non-governmental Legal Defence Institute’s (IDL) Justicia Viva project that is calling for the publication of the curriculum vitae of each aspiring Supreme Court justice, as the selection of a new president of the Supreme Court and several magistrates is approaching.
Some judges reacted negatively to the call for greater transparency. Robinson Gonzales Campos, president of one of the chambers of the Supreme Court, complained about “blatant meddling by NGOs (non-governmental organisations).”
Gonzales Campos is one of the magistrates who have come under fire for rulings in favour of former members of the Fujimori administration and of people involved in Montesinos’ vast network of corruption.
Fujimori is in prison in Chile awaiting the results of an extradition trial, and Montesinos is behind bars in Peru in connection with a number of cases of corruption and human rights violations.
Like Gonzales Campos, Palacios has been criticised by the anti-corruption authorities for several of his rulings, such as an Oct. 19, 2005 decision that cleared Fujimori (tried in absentia) of one of the more than 20 charges that he faces.
Even though an army general testified in court that as president, Fujimori had ordered him to purchase defence material from Israeli arms dealer Moshe Rothschild without the normal bidding process stipulated by law, Palacios and the rest of the magistrates in that Supreme Court chamber acquitted the former president of illicit association to commit crimes and abuse of authority.
Fujimori’s lawyer in that case, César Nakazaki, is now defending Palacios in the 300-dollar bribe case.
Palacios also sparked controversy when he accepted a request for the release of Agustín Mantilla, who served as a minister in the first term of current President Alan García (1985-1990) and had been sentenced to four years in prison after he was filmed accepting a 30,000 dollar bribe from Montesinos.
Another controversial ruling in which Palacios had a hand was last year’s acquittal of ‘Fujimorista’ legislator Martha Chávez, who was accused by witnesses of accepting campaign donations from Montesinos.
Shortly afterwards, on Jan. 1, 2006, the Supreme Court surprisingly appointed Palacios as the president of the Supreme Court chamber that will try Fujimori if he is extradited from Chile.
The permanent congressional commission decided that since Palacios is a provisional Supreme Court justice, he does not need to be impeached first, but can be investigated and tried just like any other citizen.
Lawmaker Víctor Andrés García, a member of the commission, told IPS that the legislature was shocked by the extent of the corruption in the judiciary.
“Obviously, Palacios didn’t decide to become corrupt yesterday,” García, a member of the Popular Action Party, said on Tuesday, “but was used to receiving moneyà.He has always been a ‘coimero’ (bribe-taker). I have no doubt that he has put a price on his legal verdicts.”
Former Supreme Court justice Guillermo Cabala, who in 2001 was named head of the judicial oversight office and expelled around 50 judges found to have ties with Montesinos’ criminal network, told IPS that Palacios is merely a reflection of a broader collapse of the judiciary.
“This is a sad development, but it has its silver living,” he said. “It is a tough lesson for the Supreme Court, which has always turned a blind eye to the reality in the justice system. Because of that passive stance, corruption has exploded in its face.”
The Supreme Court will now review the appointments of all of its provisional justices as well as each case being handled by its various chambers.
But will these measures suffice?
“What is happening now is that those guilty of corruption see that those who have handled the cases against them, who have tried or convicted them, are just like them or worse,” said lawyer Carlos Rivera, with the IDL.
“It sends out a very bad message that Palacios has named Nakazaki, who defended Fujimori and others accused of corruption, as his lawyer,” said Rivera. “Now no one is going to believe him when he says the courts want to fight corruption. If he asked a former police officer for 1,000 soles, how much did he demand of those who had more money?”
In 2003, the government of Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006) established a special commission for the comprehensive reform of the justice system (CERIAJUS), made up of judges, prosecutors, and representatives of universities and civil society.
But the measures suggested by CERIAJUS have never been adopted.
Roberto Miranda, one of the civil society representatives on CERIAJUS, pointed out to IPS that one of the cornerstones of judicial reform must be the fight against corruption.
“Mechanisms are needed to assess the ethical and moral fibre of the Supreme Court justices,” he said. “Until the Palacios case broke, it was believed that corruption was limited to lower levels of the judicial system.”
“But it is also important to resolve the problem of the Supreme Court’s overwhelming caseload. That bottleneck generates corruption – the possibility that a magistrate can offer a quick resolution to a case, or rule in favour of one or another of the accused. This is a serious problem, and it is what is happening,” said Miranda.
Meanwhile, as he was led to a jail cell in the Palace of Justice, just a few metres away from the office where his career came crashing down around him, Palacios protested that “I am innocent. I am a victim of a conspiracy.”
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