Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

PERU: Gov’t Backs Down on Law Letting Rights Violators Off Hook

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Sep 15 2010 (IPS) - Human rights groups welcomed the revocation by the Peruvian Congress of a law that created a statute of limitations in human rights cases, which had sparked a flurry of criticism from home and abroad.

The law, which instructed judges to toss out cases against members of the military and police accused of human rights violations committed before 2003 if no sentence had been handed down within 36 months of the start of the trial, was issued by President Alan García on Sept. 1.

However, it was repealed Tuesday at the request of García himself.

“President García’s decision to revoke the law is a positive step to ensuring that those victims of crimes against humanity at the hands of the military and police will receive the justice they deserve,” said Amnesty International’s Deputy Americas Director Guadalupe Marengo.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated Peru’s 1980-2000 armed conflict, the Shining Path guerrillas were responsible for 54 percent of the 69,000 people killed, the much smaller MRTA rebel group for 1.5 percent, and the armed forces for the rest.

But as Amnesty International pointed out in its statement, while hundreds of members of Shining Path are in prison, “many of those who committed violations in the name of the state between 1980 and 2000 remain at large.”

The only legislator to vote against the repeal of the Sept. 1 decree was Vice President Luis Giampietri — a congressman and retired vice admiral — who is facing trial for the 1986 massacre committed by naval forces when quelling a riot by Shining Path suspects at the El Frontón prison, which left at least 118 inmates dead.

García was in his first term as president (1985-1990) at the time.

On Monday, the president called an emergency cabinet meeting to approve the request to overturn the law in order “to safeguard the country’s constitutional and democratic life.” The request was immediately sent to Congress.

García issued the Sept. 1 law, which would have let off the hook many members of the security forces accused of committing crimes against humanity during the counterinsurgency war, under special legislative powers he had been granted by Congress.

The law also stated that the international legal principle according to which there is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity only applies in Peru to crimes committed after Nov. 9, 2003, when Peru ratified the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity.

On Mar. 12, the president had requested special legislative powers for a period of 60 days, to issue decrees involving the military justice code. But on Jun. 1 they were expanded, at the initiative of the party of former president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), who is in prison for crimes against humanity and corruption.

As Congress debated the repeal of the law Tuesday, García swore in nine new ministers. Several of the 17 members of his cabinet resigned to run in the April 2011 general elections. Under Peruvian law, ministers wishing to stand in elections must quit at least six months before the vote.

One of those who stepped down was Rafael Rey, who as defence minister was the chief force behind the controversial Sept. 1 law.

Uproar at home and abroad

When the law was issued two weeks ago, it triggered an outcry by human rights groups and legal experts, who said it was basically an amnesty in disguise.

Critics of the law included the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Catholic Church leaders, the ombudsman’s office of Peru, and U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism Martin Scheinin, who spoke out against it on a special visit to Peru.

On Monday, Yonhy Lescano of the opposition alliance in parliament introduced a bill to overturn the Sept. 1 decree.

But the government finally decided to back down after Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s most famous writer, suddenly resigned as head of a high-level commission appointed to build a museum to honour victims of the armed conflict.

Vargas Llosa, who lives in Spain, said in an open letter to García that the law was “a barely-disguised amnesty that would benefit a good number of people connected to the dictatorship and convicted or prosecuted for human rights crimes — murders, tortures and disappearances — among them the ex-dictator (Alberto Fujimori) and his right-hand man (Vladimiro Montesinos, his former security adviser).”

In the three-hour debate in Congress Tuesday, the only lawmakers who defended the controversial law were Fujimori allies. As they were talking, a flier signed by the Defence Ministry in defence of the law began to circulate. Rey was apparently fighting to the end.

Iván Montoya, the former head of extraditions in the anti-corruption unit of the public prosecutor’s office, told IPS that the decree was unconstitutional and posed a grave danger, because it contravened principles of the inter-American human rights system and international criminal law.

In his view, the most questionable aspect was the special legislative powers granted to the president to replace pre-trial detention for those accused of human rights crimes with a simple court summons, “which entailed the risk that the military defendants could flee and thus evade justice.”

Back-room wheeling and dealing

Rey and the pro-Fujimori legislators argued that the law would neither benefit those who had already been sentenced, like the former president, nor defendants whose trials had advanced to the oral phase.

But a group of military officers on trial for the 1991 killings of 15 people at a barbecue in the Lima neighbourhood of Barrios Altos and the 1992 kidnapping and murder of nine students and a professor at La Cantuta University in the capital — for which Fujimori has already been found guilty — asked that their case be thrown out under the Sept. 1 law.

IPS discovered that Rey and his advisers began drafting the law long before Congress granted the president special legislative powers.

Not until Friday Sept. 10 did the full story of the Defence Ministry’s involvement come to light. A report by IDL-Reporteros, an independent team of investigative journalists, revealed that Rey held a meeting to go over the final draft of the law with lawyer Sergio Tapia — Vice-President Giampietri’s defence counsel.

The meeting took place on Aug. 24, a day before the law was presented to the president’s cabinet.

According to the IDL-Reporteros story, Fujimori’s lawyer César Nakasaki, who also represents several military officers facing prosecution for human rights abuses, was also previously consulted on the law.

In addition, Nakasaki visited the Defence Ministry on Sept. 6 to review a report explaining the law.

“There was an obvious conflict of interests,” congressman Lescano told IPS. “People outside of the State cannot be allowed to quietly draft laws in coordination with the defence minister — another reason it had to be overturned.”

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