Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 29, 1999
Working for justice in Peru
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Fernando was a law student when he was arrested by the Peruvian police in 1992. Under torture, he signed a false confession and was imprisoned on a charge of possessing explosives.
Thanks to efforts by the Peruvian bishops' Social Action Commission, he was released from prison in 1998.
In Peru, there are about 3,300 cases like Fernando's-innocent people who have been arrested on suspicion of terrorist activities, tortured and sentenced without minimal guarantees of due process, says Lucy Chavez, a lawyer who works for the bishops' Social Action Commission.
The government of President Alberto Fujimori is an elected government "but it's not very democratic," the young lawyer said. "This is an apparent democracy. If you denounce human rights abuses, you could be arrested."
Political violence in Peru has significantly diminished since the capture of the leader of the Shining Path guerilla movement in 1992.
However, 1.6 million people continue to suffer the consequences of the violence that left 30,000 dead and 5,000 disappeared.
Among these are more than 430,000 displaced persons, family members of victims of political violence and those living in emergency zones for areas that suffered considerable economic damage due to political violence.
Under the guise of fighting terrorism, police have arrested thousands of people on terrorism charges, said Chavez. Torture is a systematic practice. Some 77 per cent of political prisoners report that they have been tortured or mistreated during police investigations. In the case of female prisoners, rape is frequent.
Chavez, 26, is the 1999 Share Lent visitor of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the Church's agency for international solidarity. She was in Edmonton and Calgary March 10 to 26 to speak about her work with political prisoners and their families. She visited schools, parishes and jails, carrying documents and photos depicting Peru's prison conditions as well as the social situation of her country.
One of Chavez's responsibilities is to organize campaigns to sensitize society to the dignity of prisoners. This includes conferences as well as exhibitions of art work and crafts produced by prisoners.
"We want people to see prisoners as human beings with the same needs, wants and dignity as the rest of us," Chavez said.
In Peru, justice is slow and the poor cannot afford legal help. The bishops' Social Action Commission works tirelessly for justice for the innocent. Working with the Peruvian Ombudsman's office, the commission has had more than 2,700 appeals reopened.
The commission also provides access to free legal services as well as the services of psychologists and social workers to the families of the detained.
The Alberta-Mackenzie region of Development and Peace has been focusing on Peru since 1997, providing close to $700,000 in funding for 30 development projects.
Development and Peace has also publicized the plight of political prisoners. Last summer, it presented the Peruvian government with more than 35,000 postcards signed by Canadians calling for a general amnesty for political prisoners.
Most of Peru's political prisoners are innocent, Chavez said. They were arrested and accused of terrorist activities but their crimes have never been proven. The bishops' commission investigates the cases of prisoners claiming innocence in order to appeal their cases.
An ad hoc commission created two years ago has also studied the cases of individuals claiming to be innocent. The commission has received about 2,700 petitions and 500 individuals have been set free.
However, those prisoners who have been given pardons continue to have criminal records and they have not been compensated for the economic and psychological damages suffered as a result of their unjust imprisonment, Chavez said. Many people have spent up to nine years in jail on charges of terrorism that they admitted to under torture.
She cited the cases of landlords who were arrested for renting property to terrorists. In most cases the landlords didn't know their tenants were members of the guerrilla movement.
In one case an illiterate woman was arrested after police discovered Marxist literature in her home. The books were kept there by her common law husband who was a philosophy professor.
Prison conditions in Peru are "deplorable" because the government's aim is simply to punish, not rehabilitate, Chavez said.
Almost 70 per cent of Peru's prison population consist of individuals awaiting trial. The government spends only 70 cents a day to feed each prisoner and conditions in some prisons are damaging to the health of inmates.
The Lurigancho prison in Lima was built to house 1,600 inmates but right now is housing 6,000, Chavez lamented. "That prison is a time bomb waiting to explode."
Few jails have carpentry, printing or mechanical shops; as a result, only 30 per cent of Peru's prison population works.
Prisoners accused or sentenced for terrorism and some common criminals are obliged to pass their first year in solitary confinement. Some family visits are made difficult by the isolated locations of some maximum security facilities.
Chavez said funding from Development and Peace has made possible the work of the bishops' Commission for Social Action and the freedom of people like Fernando.
Today, Fernando once again attends university, where he continues to study law. When he graduates, he will work with victims of injustice.
Chavez said Canadians can continue supporting the bishops' commission and its work through a donation to Development and Peace's Share Lent campaign.