Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-PERU: Another Controversial Acquittal of Members of Military

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Nov 24 2010 (IPS) - Sufficient evidence was presented to sentence the members of the Peruvian army responsible for the killings of 12 men, women, children and elderly persons from two highlands villages in Peru. But after a 24-year wait for justice, a court acquitted the defendants this week.

Relatives of the victims after the ruling was handed down.  Credit: Milagros Salazar /IPS

Relatives of the victims after the ruling was handed down. Credit: Milagros Salazar /IPS

The lawyers for the victims’ families are demanding a new trial.

The case was expected to set a precedent in bringing to account members of the military responsible for murders during the 1980-2000 counterinsurgency war, due to the unusual solidity of the evidence, which is generally difficult to find in cases of human rights violations.

Instead, the court ruling handed down on Monday “imposed a policy of cover-up and impunity,” Gustavo Campos, a lawyer with the non-governmental Human Rights Commission, told IPS.

In the trial observed by more than 100 people, a three-judge panel acquitted military officers Carlos Armando Bardales, Miguel Becerra, Eduardo Estela, Jesús Dante and Agustín Tuya — the last two in absentia — along with former police officer Roberto Espinoza.

The defendants, with the exception of Bardales, faced charges of murdering 12 people, including two children and an elderly couple, and setting their bodies on fire.

Bardales, who was chief of the army post that controlled the area where the killings took place, was accused of ordering the murders, a charge that was backed up by various documents.

The prosecutor asked for 20 years in prison for each of the defendants. Off-the-record information led the lawyers for the victims’ families to believe that Bardales would be found guilty, which seemed to be confirmed by his absence when the verdict began to be read out. But towards the end of the session, he appeared, to hear that he had been absolved.

The events in question occurred on Oct. 22-23, 1986, during the first administration of current President Alan García (1985-1990). Two army patrol units, “Bayer” and “Búfalo”, showed up at the highlands villages of Pomatambo and Parcco Alto in the southwestern department (province) of Ayacucho, the epicentre of the armed conflict.

The soldiers arrived at Pomatambo on the night of Oct. 22, to capture suspected members of the Maoist guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). But the people they tied up and took away with them were seven local authorities (including one woman), who were meeting to plan a sports event.

The seven villagers were taken to the nearby village of Parcco Alto, where they were killed by the troops, along with five residents of that community: the president of the local administrative council, two of his children, ages eight and 12, and his parents, who were both in their eighties.

“They killed them one by one and then set fire to their bodies,” said Dante Ramírez, who was just four years old when he saw his brother Mario and his sister Eugenia, his father Reynaldo, and his grandparents Donato and Hilda die. “I saw everything, but I was saved because a soldier was carrying me and took me away from the plaza.”

Irene Ramírez, Dante’s aunt and the daughter of the murdered elderly couple, told IPS that when she saw the defendants while the sentence was read out, what she felt was “great disdain.”

“They are my parents’ killers,” she said. “My only consolation is that I have seen who they are. I didn’t know if they were black, white, tall or short. What were they? What did they look like? Were they monsters? But I saw them and they were people; I thought they were monsters because they killed them and dismembered and burnt their bodies.”

The first time she saw their faces was Aug. 24, 2009, when the oral phase of the trial began. She said she has never gotten over her astonishment that “they weren’t monsters — they were people, just like us.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR), which from 2001 to 2003 investigated the human rights abuses committed during the civil war, initially brought the case to the Ayacucho provincial prosecutors’ office, which launched the investigation and prosecution of the men accused of the massacre.

There was abundant evidence against Bardales, such as the plan for the “Despedida 2” operation, which states that the aim of the patrols was to “destroy and/or capture” suspects; details of the routes that the units were to follow; the times the patrols took place, and other instructions.

In report No. 025/CBA, written up by Bardales himself after the killings, he states that he sent the “Bayer” and “Búfalo” patrol units on a route that included the two villages in question.

The evidence presented in the special human rights court included transcripts of radio messages stating the start and end of the operation, as well as testimony by soldiers who said Bardales had ordered the patrols.

The documents were also presented in the military court trial of the case, which was shelved.

Although the court did not find anyone guilty on Monday, it acknowledged that the victims were not killed in an armed confrontation, but as the result of “excesses” by members of the military.

The verdict also states that the victims were not members of Sendero Luminoso, as the army had claimed, and ordered that their remains be returned to their families.

The three-judge panel instructed the provincial prosecutor’s office to extend the investigation to the rank-and-file soldiers who formed part of the two patrol units.

“Their aim is for the chain to break at the weakest link,” lawyer Gery Vásquez of the Catholic Episcopal Commission for Social Action (CEAS), told IPS. Along with the Human Rights Commission, CEAS represented the victims’ families.

On Tuesday, the families’ attorneys filed a request before the Supreme Court for the trial to be declared null and void.

The then commander of the “Bayer” patrol unit, Jesús Dante, is at large and living in the United States, while Luis Tuya, a member of the unit, is presumably hiding in the west-central department of Ancash.

Lawyer Gloria Cano of the APRODEH human rights association said the court made the mistake of considering the actions of the accused separately and not as part of a “plan, a division of labour that had one single goal: eliminating” the victims.

Cano pointed out that the same court already acquitted Bardales on two previous occasions, in trials for the forced disappearance of several people in 1986 in Matero, another village in Ayacucho.

Forty-seven percent of the nearly 70,000 murders documented by the CVR occurred in Ayacucho.

“There is an intention to let Bardales get off scot-free,” she maintained.

The Parcco Alto-Pomatambo incident is one of the higher-profile cases of human rights violations committed during the two-decade counterinsurgency war, because what happened there was immediately reported by the press and by Congress.

“In this case, all of the elements were present to prove that the accused were responsible; if they were acquitted despite that, what can we expect from other trials that lie ahead?” Cano remarked.

Campos said the only mistake the prosecutor made was to accuse Espinoza, the former policeman, as an actual perpetrator of the killings, instead of as an abettor. He was at the site of the murders to take statements from the people who had been detained and saw everything, but did not report it, the Human Rights Commission lawyer said.

“The ruling is infuriating,” said Enrique Najarro, whose father was killed.

“It’s as if they had killed our loved ones all over again,” said Irene Ramírez.

But they share the hope that the Supreme Court will annul the verdict and that a new trial will be held, and they promised to push on until the end.

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