Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-PERU: US Judge Awards Millions in Damages to Massacre Survivors

Angel Páez

LIMA, Mar 5 2008 (IPS) - A U.S. federal judge ordered retired Peruvian army major Telmo Hurtado to pay 37 million dollars to two survivors of a 1985 massacre in which 69 indigenous peasants, mainly women and children, were killed in the highlands village of Accomarca.

Exhumation of Accomarca victims. Credit: Courtesy La República

Exhumation of Accomarca victims. Credit: Courtesy La República

In 2002, when the Peruvian courts reopened the case against Hurtado for leading one of the most notorious military operations against civilians during Peru’s 1980-2000 civil war, Hurtado fled to Miami, Florida, where his family was living.

On Aug. 14, 1985, “The soldiers…on Mr. Hurtado’s orders, brutally beat the men, and raped some of the women,” says the verdict handed down Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan, to which IPS had access.

“Then they killed almost all of the residents who had been rounded up, with machine-gun fire and grenades. Mr. Hurtado himself lobbed one grenade into a small house where some of the residents had been forced into. The soldiers subsequently went from house to house…looking for and killing all who could be found.

“In all, over 60 people – including the elderly, pregnant women, young children, and babies – were murdered at Accomarca…After the killing, the soldiers put on white t-shirts… and celebrated,” it adds.

After the mass killing, which was carried out on orders to eliminate Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas and their supporters, Hurtado was questioned by a Senate investigative committee, and assumed responsibility for the massacre.

“Mr. Hurtado said he was following orders to capture and destroy the enemy, and justified the killing of children and infants by explaining that the young would be indoctrinated by the Sendero Luminoso,” the judge’s ruling adds.

Hurtado was arrested in March 2007 by U.S. immigration agents in Florida for lying on his visa application when he claimed that he had no criminal record in Peru. When the defence attorneys representing the Association of the Relatives of the Victims of Violence in Accomarca learned of his arrest, they brought a civil lawsuit against him, with the support of the San Francisco-based human rights group Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA).

The CJA based its arguments on the Alien Torts Statute, under which non-U.S. citizens can seek justice in U.S. courts for violations of international law if the defendant lives in the United States or owns assets there.

The two women to whom Hurtado was ordered to pay damages, Teófila Ochoa and Cirila Pulido, who testified in the Miami court in February, were 13 and 12 years old, respectively, at the time of the massacre.

Ochoa lost her mother and her five brothers and sisters, ranging in age from one to nine years old, while Pulido’s mother and nine-month-old brother were also among the victims.

As Judge Jordan’s decision made clear, the testimony of the two women, who both work as domestics in Peru, had a devastating effect.

In Ochoa’s case, “the soldiers shot at her and followed her after the massacre, but she was able to avoid them and escape, finding refuge under a large rock and sleeping under a tree. One of her brothers was not so fortunate, and was killed by the soldiers as he ran down a hill saying he wanted to die with his mother,” the ruling states.

Pulido, meanwhile, “spent the night in her house with her surviving siblings. They could not cook any food for fear of being detected by the soldiers, and they had to endure the smell of burning flesh coming from the area where the massacre had taken place,” it adds.

In determining the amount of damages to be awarded, the judge took into account not only the wrongful death and pain and suffering of the two survivors’ mothers and siblings, but Ochoa and Pulido’s own pain and suffering.

Ochoa “still has nightmares and dreams about her mother and her siblings. She trembles at the sight of the military, and she is afraid to be left alone. She has not received any compensation from the Peruvian government for what happened on August 14, 1985,” says the verdict.

Pulido “also continues to have nightmares about being chased and burned. She is still scared of fire today, and has a hatred for soldiers. She too has not received any compensation from the Peruvian government,” it adds.

Jordan noted that although Hurtado received a six-year sentence from a military court on charges of “abuse of authority,” he did not serve any part of the sentence and later benefited from an amnesty granted by the Alberto Fujimori regime (1990-2000).

In addition, says the verdict, Hurtado, who was a lieutenant at the time of the massacre, continued to serve in the army and was promoted to major.

The plaintiffs’ Peruvian lawyer, Karim Ninaquispe, with the Runamasinchiqpaq Human Development Association, told IPS that the ruling would facilitate Hurtado’s deportation to and trial in Peru.

The accused “believed that he had achieved impunity by taking refuge in the United States, but he was wrong,” said Ninaquispe.

“Hurtado, who is known as the ‘butcher of the Andes’, and all of the other human rights violators now know that justice will catch up to them sooner or later. That is the lesson from this civil verdict handed down in Florida which, besides awarding compensation to Téofila Ochoa and Cirila Pulido, states that Hurtado is guilty of the Accomarca massacre,” she said.

Four army patrol units took part in the 1985 military operation in Accomarca. The one under Hurtado’s command did the actual killing, backed up by units led by officers Juan Rivera, David Castañeda and Luis Robles.

Rivera was arrested on immigration charges in March 2007, and is in prison in the state of Maryland, where he faces a civil lawsuit brought by the families of the victims of Accomarca with support from the CJA.

Castañeda lives in Boston, Massachussets, where he has avoided arrest for overstaying his visa by applying for political asylum, although his requests and appeals have been repeatedly turned down.

Robles, who is still an active duty army officer, was summoned by the courts in Peru and his movements have been restricted.

“Téofila and Cirila have not only had to bear their memories of the massacre all these years, but have also had to suffer the lack of justice, the total impunity. This ruling will play a decisive role with respect to the imminent decision on Hurtado to be handed down by the immigration authorities,” said Ninaquispe.

The lawyer also underlined that the verdict states that Hurtado cannot be prosecuted in absentia, and that he must be extradited to Peru before any criminal proceedings against him can move forward.

But “the final decision is in the hands of the immigration authorities,” said Ninaquispe.

Ochoa and Pulido described to IPS their experience of testifying in court in Florida on Feb. 11, when they found themselves face to face with Hurtado – who did not so much as glance in their direction.

When he was brought into the courtroom and informed that he was under no obligation to stay and listen to the plaintiffs’ testimony, Hurtado stated that he did not wish to remain, and withdrew from the hearing.

In his ruling, Jordan said that “Significantly, Mr. Hurtado expressed no remorse for his actions.”

Accomarca is located in the southern province of Ayacucho, one of the poorest areas of Peru. The army, which protected, promoted and even decorated Hurtado, has never issued an apology for the massacre.

In the meantime, judicial authorities continue to exhume the remains of the victims of Accomarca.

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