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

RIGHTS-PERU: Soldiers’ Acquittal Reflects Trend of Impunity

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Apr 30 2010 (IPS) - The acquittal by a Peruvian court of two soldiers and a police officer charged with the forced disappearance of four peasant farmers in the Andean highlands region of Ayacucho is viewed as a serious setback by the families of victims of human rights violations during the 1980-2000 civil war.

Soldiers and police who were let off the hook. Credit: Photos from the Registro Nacional de Identificación y Estado Civil. Layout design by IPS.

Soldiers and police who were let off the hook. Credit: Photos from the Registro Nacional de Identificación y Estado Civil. Layout design by IPS.

Severino Quispe, Albino Quino, Tineo Pérez and Martín Escriba were kidnapped and “disappeared” in the town of Matero, located in the southwestern Peruvian province of Ayacucho, between Jul. 25 and 30, 1986.

Based on the testimony of a number of witnesses and documentary evidence, the attorney general’s office charged soldiers Carlos Bardales and Marino Ambia and police officer Javier Culquicóndor with the detention and forced disappearance of the four men, who had filed a complaint over the illegal arrest of a relative.

But a Special Criminal Court surprised observers by ruling on Apr. 26 that although there was sufficient evidence of the forced disappearance of the four men after their detention by army troops, there was “reasonable doubt” as to whether the three defendants were in fact responsible.

The sentence was immediately appealed to the Supreme Court by the plaintiffs’ lawyers, who believe it follows a growing trend of judicial impunity for members of the military involved in human rights violations during the two-decade counterinsurgency war.

The public prosecutor for the trial, Isidoro Prado, also filed a motion to overturn the acquittal, while family members said they were “outraged” by the ruling.

“There were witnesses who testified about the detentions and documents serving as evidence,” Karim Ninaquispe, the lawyer representing Albino Quino’s family, told IPS. “Nevertheless, for the magistrates, there is reasonable doubt regarding the responsibility of the accused. Why? Because they want a piece of paper that proves an order was issued for the forced disappearance of the men. That doesn’t exist ”

Quino’s wife, Francisca Janampa, “witnessed her husband’s arrest by the soldiers,” said Ninaquispe, of the Runamasinchiqpaq human rights association (ADEHR).

“She fully identified them, and nonetheless, the judges believe there is ‘reasonable doubt.’ It’s unbelievable. That’s why we have appealed the ruling before the Supreme Court,” she added.

On Jul. 25, 1986, a counterinsurgency unit from the Cangallo army base entered the town of Matero in search of a group of wanted peasant farmers. When they did not find the men they were looking for, they arrested Francisca Janampa and Severino Quispe, a minor. A short time later, Janampa was released on the condition that the wanted men turn themselves in to the army.

On Jul. 30, the three community members sought by the army — Quino, Pérez and Escriba — turned themselves in at the office of police chief Javier Culquicóndor. They were accompanied by fellow residents of Matero who were prepared to vouch for their innocence.

Culquicóndor notified the army, and a group of soldiers came to take the three men to the Cangallo army base. They were never seen or heard from again, nor was Quispe.

These events took place one year into the first term of social democratic President Alan García (1985-1990). García was re-elected for a second five-year term beginning in July 2006, this time running on a conservative platform in contrast to the espousal of centre-left policies during his first term in office.

For nearly a quarter century, the families of the four victims have sought to bring to account those responsible for their disappearance, as well as attempting to discover the whereabouts of their loved ones’ remains.

“The acquittal of the two soldiers and the police officer accused of the forced disappearance of the four peasants in Matero is not an isolated incident,” said Carlos Rivera, an attorney from the non-governmental Legal Defence Institute. “It forms part of a trend in the judicial branch to exonerate human rights violators.”

They do this “under the argument that there isn’t sufficient proof against the accused or that there is reasonable doubt of their guilt,” Rivera told IPS.

“This is the seventh case in which the Special Criminal Court has acquitted the military personnel and police implicated. In three other cases, they were found guilty,” he added.

This is the second time that the crimes committed in Matero have remained unpunished. In 2008, a court of first instance ruled that there was insufficient evidence against the accused, despite the fact that Francisca Janampa testified about her own arrest and that of her spouse.

“She described how the events took place, identified the men responsible from photographs, and specified the aliases they used in the region, but it was all disallowed by the judge,” said Ninaquispe. The sentence was appealed, leading to this second and equally fruitless trial.

“I also believe we are seeing a consolidation of a tendency of the judicial powers to acquit those responsible for the crime of forced disappearance,” she commented.

Gloria Cano of the non-governmental Pro Human Rights Association, which is representing the relatives of three of the victims from Matero, noted that six years ago, the government pledged to take all measures necessary to punish the men responsible for the disappearance of the four peasant farmers.

This commitment was made at the request of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

“Nevertheless, for the second time, the judicial branch has exonerated the accused, disregarding the evidence presented against them,” Cano told IPS.

“The decision to acquit is a step backwards for justice. It is an outrageous ruling,” she declared.

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