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Innocents fingered by guerrillas now seek release from prison

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Lima, Peru

Church workers, long at the forefront of human rights issues here, are working today on behalf of several thousand innocent people imprisoned on charges of terrorism or treason under the draconian anti-terrorism legislation enacted by President Alberto Fujimori’s government in the early 1990s.

The imprisoned innocents represent the newest arena of human rights abuses in a country long plagued by such problems.

For more than a dozen years leading up to 1992, human rights workers in Peru -- many in offices supported by the Catholic church -- focused almost exclusively on cases related to the country’s political violence.

Mass killings and extrajudicial executions were committed by both the Peruvian military and the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas. Torture and disappearances were common as recently as 1992, the year nine university students and a professor were abducted from the Teachers College in Lima, and the year a medical student, the son of a prominent doctor, was forced into the trunk of a police car in full view of TV cameras, driven to an unknown location and shot to death.

Much changed in Peru on Sept. 12, 1992, the night Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman was captured in a suburban safe house with the group’s other top members. The charges of gross human rights abuses tapered off, and to the world, Peru presented the face of a country returning to normal.

But normal became frightening.

Most of the innocents now in prison were tried and condemned in brief trials in military courts by anonymous judges. Defendants usually did not know the source of the charges against them and were not permitted to present evidence in their defense. The trials lasted a matter of hours; the sentences range from 10 years to life.

Some were arrested simply because they had the same name as a suspected terrorist. Many were fingered by members of the Shining Path or Peru’s other guerrilla group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, who traded information for amnesty under a law passed in 1992. Unable to provide the number of names required by police, some of these “repentant” terrorists named innocent people.

No one really knows

“I don’t think anyone really knows for sure how many innocent people are still in jail,” said Ivan Bazan, head of the ecumenical human rights organization FEDEPAZ.

“The justice minister has said there are about 400. We think the real figure is substantially higher.”

In August 1996, the government agreed to a yearlong review of cases by an ad hoc commission made up of Ombudsman Jorge Santistevan de Noriega, the country’s minister of justice, and Fr. Hubert Lanssiers, a Belgian priest of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and one of the most respected figures on Peru’s human rights scene. Fujimori has known Lanssiers since the president’s son was a student at the Sacred Hearts school in suburban Lima.

Observers say it was that personal relationship that convinced the president, who had steadfastly opposed any review of terrorism cases, to accept the review commission.

About 2,000 requests for review were submitted to the commission, Bazan said.

The commission’s original mandate was extended in December for one more year, and human rights workers hope it can continue its work until all cases are reviewed. The problem, Lanssiers said, is that arrests are still being made on terrorism charges, so the commission continues to receive new requests for review. The commission has already gained the release of 462 people, and 400 cases are pending. The ones that remain, Lanssiers said, are the most difficult.

It is a slow process, partly because human rights lawyers want to be sure the prisoners whose cases they present to Fujimori are truly innocent and partly because of the Peruvian judicial system’s inefficiency in handling appeals.

“You have to take into account the majesty of the law,” Lanssiers said dryly. “If it goes too fast, it isn’t majestic.”

For an innocent person, arrest on terrorism charges is a nightmare: brutal handling by police or military officers, a summary trial, imprisonment in the terrorist cellblocks in prisons ranging from the overcrowded Castro Castro in Lima to the infamous Yanamayo outside Puno, at an altitude of some 13,000 feet. Most of these cases were heard by anonymous military judges whose faces were hidden and whose voices were distorted to prevent identification. The defendants were often prevented from presenting evidence. Peru abolished the “faceless judges” in October 1997.

Still, for innocent prisoners whose cases have been reviewed by the commission, the nightmare doesn’t end with the presidential indult.

“When an innocent person leaves prison,” Lanssiers said, “they have 300 meters -- from the prison gate to the curb -- to come to grips with reality. Someone said to them, ‘Get your things together. You’re going.’ You’re going -- but where?”

Most of the “innocents,” as they are known, are poor farmers or small merchants from rural parts of the country. They are released with only the clothes they are wearing. Their identity documents, indispensable for voting and getting a job, are not returned to them. They don’t even have bus fare.

“A short time later, 90 percent of these people say they were better off in prison,” Lanssiers said. “At least there they had food and shelter.”

An indult is not exactly a pardon. Human rights activists argued against presidential pardons for the prisoners, because they were not guilty but had been imprisoned on spurious charges. From the beginning, the indults gained only the prisoners’ release from prison. The charges remained on their police records, effectively blocking any possibility of future employment and increasing their chances of being rearrested.

One step forward came in December, when Congress approved a measure to clear the indult recipients’ records. Even the new measure, however, does not provide automatic safety.

Compensation proposed

“It’s easier to apply this new law with those who have been released recently,” said Sofia Macher, executive secretary of the National Human Rights Coordinating Committee, an umbrella group of human rights organizations. “Many [who were released earlier] have already returned to their homes, and it is difficult to locate them.” The government argues that it does not have funds budgeted for financial compensation for the innocents, but the coordinating committee has proposed other forms of compensation as well, including access to social security, free schooling for children and reinstatement in former jobs.

Not all of the people whose names were listed by repentant terrorists ended up in prison. Warrants are still out for the arrest of many, and this is another issue that worries human rights groups.

“We’re sure there are innocent people on these lists of warrants,” Macher said.

According to the Ombudsman’s Office, there are about 5,000 warrants outstanding on terrorism charges, most for people in rural areas, but there is no way of knowing how many are innocent. Those whose names are on the list live under a constant, menacing cloud. “When they travel and pass through police controls, the police review the lists and extort money from them,” Macher said. “They don’t arrest them. They make them pay in order to pass the control post.”

Macher would like the ad hoc commission to review these cases as well, but so far the commission has declined doing so. The only way people on the warrant list can have their cases reviewed is to turn themselves in voluntarily and go to prison. Then they can ask the ad hoc commission for a review.

But the outcome of that process cannot be guaranteed, Macher said, and innocent people may spend months or years unjustly imprisoned while their cases are reviewed.

Still, there are signs of hope. One judge in the southern highland city of Cusco reviewed the cases of several people whose names appeared on the arrest list, declared them innocent and ordered their names removed.

And public opinion about the innocents has changed. “The fact that the public is aware that there are innocent people [in prison], that innocent people were sentenced” is a step forward, Macher said. “Until a couple of years ago, no one believed that. They said human rights organizations defended terrorists. Now no one doubts that what we said was true.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999