New Human Rights Council in Peru Tackles Plight of Innocents

Saturday, July 1, 2000

Forty Evangelical Christians Remain Jailed on False Charges of Terrorist Involvement

by David Miller

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (Compass) -- In late June, the government of Peru initiated a special task force, the National Human Rights Council, which is charged with freeing persons wrongfully imprisoned as terrorists.

Among the innocent are at least 40 evangelical Christians, some of whom were recommended for pardon nearly a year ago. They remain in prison, however, pending the signature of President Alberto Fujimori on their release orders.

The National Human Rights Council will begin reviewing cases of wrongful imprisonment and, hopefully, open the door to freedom for the innocent. Created by Congress earlier this year, the Council replaces the former Ad Hoc Commission that Fujimori disbanded on December 31, 1999. Before its demise, the Ad Hoc Commission had reviewed thousands of cases of persons imprisoned under harsh anti-terrorist laws that Fujimori decreed in 1992.

The president dictated those strict security measures to deal with the menace of the Shining Path guerrilla movement, which ravaged the country for more than a decade before fading into impotence at the end of 1994.

Anti-terrorist statutes allowed police to arrest terrorist suspects on scanty evidence. The accused were denied access to legal counsel while in police custody and faced trial by a military tribunal of anonymous judges. These "faceless magistrates" -- they wore hoods during judicial proceedings to conceal their identity -- typically deliberated for less than a week before handing down sentences of 20 years to life imprisonment.

The Fujimori administration credits the anti-terrorist laws with helping defeat Shining Path. Unfortunately, the measures also ruined the lives of thousands of ordinary citizens.

During its three-year investigative tenure, the Ad Hoc Commission discovered that more than 800 persons jailed as Shining Path terrorists were, in fact, innocent. Fujimori signed release orders for 469 of those; among them were 32 evangelical Christians.

According to the Constitution of Peru, the president is the only public official invested with pardon powers. Observers of the political situation in the country believe Fujimori has refused to sign more release orders because it weakens his credibility and, consequently, his hold on presidential power.

According to Alfonso Wieland, director of the Peace and Hope Association, a Christian legal aid service in Lima which works on behalf of the falsely accused, at least 316 people whose innocence was established by the Ad Hoc Commission remain in jail.

"At the end of last year, 52 cases were left pending," Wieland told Compass in a telephone interview. "All these passed judicial review; they only lack the president's signature to go free. Of the 52 prisoners, the Peace and Hope Association has recommended pardon for 40 evangelical Christians."

When asked if he thought the new National Human Rights Council might resolve the cases of the remaining prisoners, Wieland expressed some doubt.

"The Council represents a judicial solution that the government is providing, and we are going to pursue the cases that we have presented. Nevertheless, what concerns us is that it does not just depend on a legal process, but also upon the political will of the government.

"For instance, if Congress passes an (amnesty) law, but there is no political will on the part of the president to sign the pardons, then the unresolved cases will continue to pile up. We hope the president will be sensitive to this matter, not just receive pardon recommendations, but in fact approve them," Wieland said.

Given Fujimori's statements in regard to the plight of the innocent, Wieland and his associates have reason for concern. Last December, reporters asked Fujimori in a press conference why he refused to pardon more prisoners recommended for release. "There are no more innocent people in jail in Peru," he replied.

Human rights workers in Peru, of course, disagree. Among them is Peru's public defender, Jorge Santistevan, who headed the now defunct Ad Hoc Commission. "In total, there are 411 pending requests for pardon," Santistevan stated in a report that appeared last December in the Lima newspaper "El Comercio." "I don't know how many of these are innocent, but just one is enough."

Wieland hopes that, as in the past, concerned Christians will rally behind the effort to free the falsely accused. Citing letter-writing campaigns and prayer vigils that, since 1981, have helped free 92 evangelical believers wrongfully imprisoned as terrorists, the Peace and Hope director called on fellow Christians to support the efforts of the National Human Rights Council.

"We see a continued need for support from the churches -- churches here in Peru as well as from our brothers and sisters internationally. The letters they send will be one means of contributing to the liberation of believers in prison."

Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.