Armed Conflicts, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-PERU: Army Chief Complains that Trials Hurt “Morale”

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Mar 20 2009 (IPS) - Trials on human rights abuses committed during Peru’s 1980-2000 civil war hurt military morale because “they leave the impression that those of us who fought in the counterinsurgency war were only dedicated to killing civilians,” said Peruvian army chief Otto Guibovich.

General Otto Guibovich Credit: Courtesy of La República

General Otto Guibovich Credit: Courtesy of La República

“I myself, who participated in the war, categorically state that this is not true,” Guibovich said in an interview with IPS.

The general said the military in Peru had learned from the experience of the armed conflict, and that unflagging respect for human rights is a fundamental component of the current counterinsurgency strategy.

Some 640 retired and active military officers have been tried for human rights violations, as a result of the recommendation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2003 report that those responsible for the highest profile human rights abuses be brought to trial.

But human rights violations in a counterinsurgency context are apparently not just a thing of the past.

Since “Operation Excellence” got underway last August against a remnant band of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Maoist insurgency in the jungles of the Apurimac and Ene river valleys, local peasant farmers have accused 47 soldiers of forced disappearance and other crimes.

Over the last few years, thousands of troops have been mobilised to that area to fight a small remaining Sendero Luminoso unit.

Anyone who committed excesses in the war against Sendero Luminoso and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) should be prosecuted and punished, said Guibovich.

But, he argued, the armed forces cannot be accused of committing human rights violations as a habitual practice. “The margins of error in the counter-subversive war are very small – highly regrettable, but small,” he said.

“These are very specific, limited cases. In order for justice to be effective it must be specific, and must avoid generalisations. In the army, we weren’t taught to gather up suspects in a room and throw in a grenade. We were not indoctrinated to kill, to rape, to torture. That is just not how things are,” the general said.

“The problem is not seen from the perspective of the psychology of war. Three officers who receive the same training may have different reactions in a conflict. In the face of gunfire, I might react with calm, but maybe others will respond by shooting. That is very human, but there is resistance to understanding it. Just because a small group commits excesses doesn’t mean we are all the same,” added Guibovich.

Retired navy commander Andrés Egocheaga was sentenced on Jan. 30 to 20 years in prison for torturing and burning alive a 17-year-old boy, Indalecio Pomatanta, who was falsely accused of being a “terrorist”, in the jungle city of Pucallpa in 1995.

This was one of the cases that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended be brought to court.

Egocheaga is one of the first military officers to be convicted and sentenced for human rights abuses committed during the civil war.

The trials have been long and drawn-out, in large part due to delaying tactics on the part of the officers’ defence lawyers.

Guibovich maintained that if the judges took into account a bit more the circumstances in which the armed forces were fighting subversion, they would not be so ready to expand the human rights accusations to the officers commanding the soldiers involved in “these very specific and limited cases.”

“The work was extremely hard, but we had to do it. I have seen people under my command die. I have picked up dead soldiers, young men aged 18 or 20 who were doing their military service and defending democracy,” he said.

“They were not killers: they were the sons of poor families, like the peasants massacred by Sendero Luminoso. But who is in the dock now? The military,” said Guibovich.

The army chief was referring to trials in which judges have sought to hold responsible the military commanders of the areas where human rights crimes were committed, as in the case of the Los Cabitos military base, which served as a torture and extermination centre during the conflict, and the massacres of local peasants in the highlands villages of Accomarca (1984) and Cayara (1988).

Ronald Gamarra, executive director of the National Human Rights Coordinator, a local NGO, said that only some judges have included military commanders in the scope of their investigations.

“It cannot be stated that the prosecutions are generalised, as General Guibovich says, because legal action is taken against people, who have names, and not against the components of an institution,” Gamarra commented to IPS.

“What is happening is that some military commanders are being tried because the courts have found that they ordered or authorised actions that violate human rights, as part of a counter-subversive strategy. In these cases, there is evidence that the military personnel who committed crimes did so with the knowledge of their commanders,” he added.

But the army chief said there is a sense of persecution among the military, and especially among those who took part in the civil war or are today fighting Sendero Luminoso in the Apurimac and Ene river valleys.

“It’s true, the trials are not focusing on the military as an institution. But they generalise anyway because now it is not only the soldier, the lieutenant, the captain who took part in the excesses who is being accused, but the entire chain of command, all the way up to the general, the chief, and the entire institution,” Guibovich asserted.

“That is why those being prosecuted number in the hundreds. But to find out the truth, you can’t generalise,” he said.

The general partly attributed the number of trials against members of the military to the fact that the judicial system is basing the cases on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which he said does not reflect the military’s version of what occurred during the civil war.

“The military have not yet told our side of the story. The Truth Commission report does not completely reflect the version of all of us who were directly involved,” he said.

“I was involved in the war. But we have not told our truth, maybe because we have not been good communicators,” he said.

But Gamarra said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report contains the accounts of all of the parties to the war, including members of the armed forces. “The problem is that the army and the armed forces in general do not like to be investigated,” the activist said.

“We recognise the hard work of the members of the armed forces in bringing about peace in the country, but they are public functionaries and as such they must be held accountable, whenever the authorities deem necessary. And they must provide the information requested, for the good of democracy and the rule of law,” he said.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission held Sendero Luminoso responsible for 54 per cent of the nearly 70,000 deaths in the civil war, the MRTA for 1.5 per cent, and the armed forces for the rest.

Guibovich complained that the trials against members of the military who are currently fighting Sendero Luminoso in the Apurimac and Ene river valleys put them at serious risk.

“Dangerous helicopter flights are needed to remove them from the combat zones and transfer them to the courts, in order for them to give their statements,” he said. “We respect the courts, but it must also be understood that we are at war.”

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