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Irony and Integrity
Human Rights Ruling Benefits Victims and Abusers

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, October 19, 2007 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Soon after former President Alberto Fujimori was extradited to Peru to face human rights and corruption charges, his daughter Keiko, a Peruvian lawmaker, began pleading for his rights. She argued that his jail cell was too small and that he should receive family visits, appropriate care for his ailments and be able to exercise.

It seems that Fujimori -- accused of hiring death squads and ordering massacres while in power during the 1990s -- has acquired a newfound appreciation for human rights. As Monica Feria pointed out, "life is ironic."

She isn't kidding. Feria has spent the last 10 years representing victims of the Fujimori regime. She was among those who survived a four-day air and ground assault by Peruvian security forces on the maximum-security Castro Castro Prison that housed alleged Shining Path guerrilla members. Afterward, she spent five months incommunicado in a small, cramped cell.

Feria took the case of the Castro Castro victims to the Inter-American Human Rights Court, which last November clarified the conditions for the humane treatment of inmates and ordered the Peruvian government to compensate some of the prisoners and their relatives. For her work, Feria has received international recognition, including the Gruber Justice Prize, which was presented to her last week in Washington.

"The same ruling I was able to obtain" from the court, Feria said in an interview, "now benefits Fujimori." But she adds, that's precisely "how it should be." To Feria, who now lives in exile in Britain, the ruling she obtained represents progress for her country and helps to restore some of the rights that were eroded under the banner of fighting terrorism. "We went through a period during which security was the only consideration and society was stripped of all kinds of individual rights," she said.

Not everyone sees it as an advance. Peruvian President Alan Garcia is refusing to compensate the victims of Castro Castro and suggests that the $20 million the court ordered paid would be better spent helping Peru's poor.

While this argument may resonate with a great number of Peruvians, it misses the point. The court decided that the Peruvian state, with its responsibility to guarantee the "right to personal integrity of individuals under its custody," couldn't massacre or torture its citizens with impunity. Sadly, Garcia still wants to avoid the penalty by arguing that the victims were terrorists when in fact, most had not been tried and once many were, as was Feria, they were found to be innocent.

Garcia should know better than most the importance of an objective decision untainted by political considerations. He himself once turned to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, the sister body to the court, to reclaim his rights as a Peruvian citizen. The commission's response to his appeal paved the way for his return from exile and eventual successful re-election as president.

Garcia is not alone. Other people of power have been turning in greater numbers to the commission, once seen as the realm of the powerless for redressing wrongs such as torture or extrajudicial killings. Among them are former Presidents Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela, Miguel Angel Rodriguez of Costa Rica, Lucio Gutierrez of Ecuador, Efrain Rios Montt of Guatemala, as well as former military leaders, judges or legislators. A decade ago, the commission heard from 400 individuals with complaints or petitions related to human rights violations. Today, that number has tripled.

Experts see these developments as positive for human rights in the region and indicate this is a sign of the system's growing credibility. "If the cause of defending and promoting human rights is to survive future decades at a universal level, it will depend fundamentally on our capacity to vindicate these rights in no ideological terms," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division.

Respect for human rights is still far from sacrosanct in the region. As I write, representatives of Latin American governments in Washington are meeting to discuss ways to impose limits on the actions of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the Inter-American Human Rights Court. Such discussions are not the flagrant snubbing of despots and dictators -- some may recall that Fujimori withdrew from the court in protest of some of its rulings -- but remind us of the tendencies that affect many at the helm. Once in power, leaders tend to perceive the defense of human rights as a nuisance, too easily forgetting the value of a system that one day might protect them.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.

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