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PERU: Concerted Fight Against Decrees that Clamp Down on Protests

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Jul 31 2007 (IPS) - Regional governors, legislators, trade unions and civil society groups in Peru are demanding the repeal of decree-laws issued by President Alan García that provide a legal framework for harsh repression of the social protests that have been raging around the country.

The first few days of August will bring new headaches for the government, which bills itself as social democratic. Provincial governors and the National Coordinator for Human Rights plan to challenge the most controversial aspects of the decrees as unconstitutional.

The head of the National Coordinator for Human Rights, Pablo Rojas, told IPS that his non-governmental organisation and a group of governors would present their complaint to Congress and the ombudsman’s office, to initiate legal action in the Constitutional Court.

The Coordinator is also drawing up a report on the excesses allegedly committed by the García administration under the new decrees. The report will be submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which forms part of the Organisation of American States (OAS).

The measures, seen as an attempt to crush the current wave of protests, form part of 11 decree-laws that were adopted on Jul. 22 by the executive branch under special powers granted by the legislature to crack down on organised crime.

Among their most controversial aspects, the decrees ban public employees and officials who take part in protests or strikes from working for the state or engaging in politics, and make them liable to prison terms; classify strikes as illegal attempts at “extortion”; and declare that members of the armed forces or police who injure or kill someone “in the line of duty” cannot be held legally responsible or tried in court.

During the first year of the administration of García, who took office in late July 2006, eight people have already been killed in police crackdowns on protests, according to the Pro Human Rights Association.

The demonstrations held around the country have set forth a variety of demands, such as the elimination of outsourcing and subcontracting in the mining industry; an increase in the taxes paid by mining companies; a revision of the free trade agreement signed with the United States; and the repeal of an educational reform law that teachers say is aimed at privatising the system.

These grievances, which have brought hundreds of thousands of workers, small farmers, teachers and members of a variety of social organisations into the streets, refer to promises that García made in his election campaign.

But the government’s response to the demonstrations has been to deploy more than 15,000 police officers, call out the armed forces to keep protesters from occupying public offices, and issue the new decree-laws that make it easy to clamp down on social protest.

The secretary-general of the Confederación Nacional de Trabajadores del Perú central trade union, Mario Huamán, warned that if the government does not back down “from its attempt to repress social mobilisations, new pressure measures will be adopted.”

Huamán urged Congress to overrule the executive decrees, saying that if it failed to do so, it would be an “accomplice to an abusive decision that seeks to silence citizens’ claims and grievances.”

The opposition is also working to get certain parts of the decrees overturned. The centre-left Unión por el Perú (UPP) introduced a draft law last week to that end.

The secretary-general of the UPP, José Vega, told IPS that he would press for debate of the draft law in the first week of August, when the new legislature begins to meet, because “basic rights are being violated.”

“A repressive policy towards protests is counterproductive, and paves the way for human rights violations and unrest and lack of governability,” said Rojas.

Some governors see the decrees as targeting provincial governments that have backed protests by different social groups in their districts.

Although García apologised to striking teachers on Saturday for calling them “parasites” because they continued to draw a paycheck even though they were on strike, he did not say he was sorry for describing the leaders of protests in poor regions as “crazy, suicidal and resentful.”

The popular demonstrations have mainly broken out in the southern regions of Huancavelica, Ayacucho, Puno and Apurimac, where poverty levels range from 75 to 89 percent, according to the national statistics institute (INEI).

In his speech to Congress Saturday, the president said his goal was to bring the poverty rate down from 50 to 30 percent in urban areas and from 45 to 20 percent in the countryside by the end of his term, in 2011.

The coordinator of the national assembly of governors, Vladimiro Huaroc, told IPS that he would ask the new speaker of parliament, Luis Gonzáles Posada, to push for the repeal of the decree that punishes the participation by public officials in strikes or demonstrations, because it violates the rights of regional authorities by prohibiting them from supporting the demands of their constituents.

Referring to the unrest in the country’s poorest regions, Huaroc said it is true, as García stated, that the funds transferred to the regional administrations have significantly increased. “But that is not sufficient,” he argued.

“What the head of state did not say (on Saturday) was that 80 percent of the funds transferred go towards the salaries of teachers, health professionals and other public employees, and that only 20 percent go into public spending,” he said.

“Conflicts between local communities and mining companies over pollution and protests by farmers demanding policies to help them survive the effects of the free trade agreement signed with the United States were fundamental issues that the president neglected to mention,” he added.

Governors and mayors from poor regions are working together to fight the decree-laws as unconstitutional. Most analysts also agree that the executive branch has exceeded the bounds of the powers it was granted to fight organised crime and has thus violated the constitution.

Constitutional expert Jorge Avendaño said the concept of “crime of extortion” has been distorted, because it normally refers to the wrongful obtention of undue economic gain.

Samuel Abad, a former assistant defender of constitutional affairs in the ombudsman’s office, told IPS that the decree that makes it illegal for governors and other public officials to take part in strikes or protests is ambiguous.

Congress did not give García “a blank check” to issue such broad decrees, said Abad. However, he also clarified that the package of decree-laws included important provisions for fighting organised crime.

The ombudsman’s office told IPS that it was drawing up a report on the decrees to submit to Congress, which has 10 days after they go into effect to reach a decision on the question.

Congress could repeal the decree-laws, as the UPP lawmakers are demanding, which would be faster than the legal challenge against their constitutionality.

But since last Thursday, the presidency of Congress is once again in the hands of a representative of the governing Aprista party.

In addition, ruling party legislators have introduced a draft law that would make it easier to remove regional authorities.

At the same time, the national government has alleged that some of the protests have been financed by provincial governments, and Comptroller General Genaro Matute informed IPS that he would approve an investigation into whether public funds have been used to that end.

Ombudswoman Beatriz Merino said the decrees are aimed at “labelling public officials who take part in strikes as criminals” and at “criminalising” protests.

“They are looking for ways to intimidate us; they want to back us into a corner,” Hernán Fuentes, governor of the southern region of Puno, remarked to IPS. Fuentes is the local official who has clashed the most with the government of Alan García.

Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo said the important thing is to govern with the constitution in hand, to keep Peru safe from unrest and chaos. “Democracy is not disorder, and the country does not belong to the anarchy-mongers,” he said.

Avendaño said the government was making a mistake in trying to preserve order regardless of respect for the right to life, by declaring that members of the military and the police could not be charged for killing a person in the line of duty.

“This decree could open the door to abuses, because the police and members of the armed forces are also human and can make mistakes,” said Avendaño. “That is why the decision to establish legal responsibility must be left in the hands of prosecutors and judges.”

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