An international human rights group condemned Peru's counter-terrorism laws today and urged President Alberto Fujimori to address immediately the plight of hundreds of people who may have been wrongly convicted.
The report by Human Rights Watch/Americas -- which comes just a week after the U.N. Human Rights Committee issued its own rebuke -- represents one of the most broadly documented denunciations of many aimed at the anti-terrorist legislation since its inception four years ago.
Human rights leaders here credit the international campaign of condemnation -- which has involved the U.S. State Department, the Roman Catholic Church and the European Union among many governments and groups -- with forcing Fujimori to ease his hard-line stance. Over the last two months, in a marked departure from his prior position, the president has acknowledged that some people have been unjustly detained and sentenced, and he proposed what he calls "a process of rectification."
At issue are repressive counter-terrorist measures that created a secretive judicial and penal system to process and punish members of two revolutionary guerrilla groups responsible for a wave of bombings and assassinations that began in 1980 -- Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. But with its reliance on "faceless" judges, military tribunals and restrictions on due process -- including alleged torture -- the system has been the target of continuous criticism by human rights groups both here and abroad.
The principal mitigating measure proposed by Fujimori is creation of a high-level commission that would investigate and perhaps pardon "the innocents" -- as the estimated 500 Peruvians said to have been wrongly imprisoned are known here. The commission proposal is one of several made by the government last week; another calls for appointment of a human rights ombudsman.
But the commission would have no effect on the anti-terrorist tribunals, which will continue to operate. And even those who might be pardoned by the panel would still be considered guilty under Peruvian law. "It resolves the problem of their freedom but not the root of the problem, which is that they are innocent," said Francisco Soberon, of Peru's Pro-Human Rights Association.
But like other human rights workers, Soberon said that perhaps the biggest advance on the issue has been Fujimori's acknowledgment that a problem exists. Their hope now is that the government will adopt some of the recommendations in today's Human Rights Watch report.
Called "Presumption of Guilt: Human Rights Violations and the Faceless Courts in Peru," the report calls for a review of more than 5,000 cases, abolition of military courts and a restoration of a defendant's basic rights -- including the right of the defense to cross-examine prosecution witnesses.
"I think this is a wonderful opportunity to look at the entire system and push for full revision of the process," said Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Americas. "The first step for Fujimori was to address the problem; the second step is to materialize that into some kind of remedy."
"By recognizing there are innocents, they should take the next step . . . which is a reform of the system," said Susana Villaran, executive director of a human rights umbrella group here. "Is there a political will to do this? That is the question."
Despite some recent bomb attacks, Shining Path and Tupac Amaru are now greatly weakened, and many here argue that it is time to revamp the anti-terrorism statutes. Public opinion polls indicate that a vast majority of Peruvians are aware of the "innocents" and consequently of the laws' shortcomings. That, too, is seen as an incentive for politicians to act.
There is also a public relations incentive. Peru is wooing foreign companies and tourists, but the country's image takes a beating from every critical human rights report. Loans from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank also have been challenged by human rights groups; today's report, for example, urges the Clinton administration to oppose a pending World Bank loan for the Peruvian judiciary. Luz Salgado Rubianes, third vice president of the legislature and former head of the state human rights commission, said that the government is growing more flexible because the nature of Peruvian terrorism has changed. The "drastic measures" needed to combat the two revolutionary movements, she said, will eventually be replaced.