Seventeen innocent men and women in Peru, some of whom had been imprisoned for over ten years, will be freed from prison this weekend.
The men and women had all been recommended for release as early as May but were unable to walk free because Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo did not sign their pardons until this week.
Four of the pardoned prisoners, Darwin Aquino Ortiz, Wilbert Apaza Vargas, Niger Gonzalez Guerra and David Espinoza Monge, were represented by former prisoner and CSW partner Wuille Ruiz Figueroa of the Evangelical Human Rights NGO, Paz y Esperanza (Peace and Hope). The four men have been leaders of the Christian communities in their respective prisons throughout their incarceration.
CSW representatives met with Aquino and Apaza during two visits to the Miguel Castro Castro Maximum Security Prison in Lima in 2001 and 2002. In July they both expressed frustration at knowing they had been found innocent, yet still finding themselves imprisoned, with no idea when they would be released.
Apaza described the agony of waiting each day to hear whether or not his pardon had been signed: "I have in my memory beautiful stories which I have lived through these more than seven hard and difficult years. The glory of our Redeemer fills me with the blessing of being helped by brothers and sisters whom I never imagined would worry about this humble servant... I will never forget this beautiful experience and it will always be a blessing that Christ gave me in the midst of this familiar pain, pain that unfortunately still continues as I am waiting, a tortuous wait, this martyring and dramatic wait for the signature of the President of Peru."
Both he and Aquino have wives and young children who have been left virtually destitute. Apaza's children have been forced to eat at a community feeding centre and are suffering from malnutrition.
Apaza was a university student when he was arrested on March 22, 1995. The charges against him were based on his friendship with his former professor whom the police suspected of sympathy towards the terrorist group The Shining Path. His home was invaded by security agents who not only detained Apaza but also took his younger brother and sister, her husband and two-year-old son into custody. The arrest of his family was meant to exert psychological pressure on Apaza in an effort to force him to 'confess'. Apaza, now 34, was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment by anonymous judges. While in prison he was a leader of the literary workshops where he wrote poetry in an effort to express his pain at being forcibly separated from his family, including the agony of being unable to say goodbye to his father who died last winter and of the feelings of impotency at being unable to help his wife and children as they suffered from illness and malnutrition. He was taken on as an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience and plans to return to university to study law.
Aquino, now 34, was a teacher at the pre-university academy, ADUNI, when he was arrested on April 23, 1993. The police believed the academy was sympathetic to left wing terrorists and ignored Aquino's pleas of innocence. A tribunal of anonymous judges sentenced Aquino to 20 years' imprisonment without examining the evidence in his favour. His wife Mirtha and two-month-old daughter were left on their own - Aquino has only been able to see his daughter grow up from behind bars. While in prison, Aquino has been one of the most dynamic members of the Christian community - leading daily 4am prayer sessions and preaching throughout the prison.
Guerra came from a rural area in the Tabalosas District in Lamas Province. Far from being part of a terrorist organisation, he actually participated in a civilian defence unit meant to protect their village from terrorist attacks. He was arrested on January 19, 1994 and even under torture maintained his innocence. Anonymous judges sentenced him to 20 years in prison. Now 40, Guerra plans to return to his home to restart his life in freedom.
Espinoza was a medical student when he was arrested on April 12, 1992. He was taken by security agents to a military base where he was severely tortured. For more than a week after his arrest, his family did not know where he was or why he had been taken. He maintained his innocence but a tribunal of anonymous judges, ignoring the physical evidence of torture on his body, sentenced him to 20 years in prison. While still maintaining his innocence, Espinoza, with the help of lawyers at Peace and Hope, has taken advantage of a law allowing prisoners who have served over half of their sentence with good behaviour to apply for early release. After he is freed he plans to return to his study of medicine while also pursuing his case at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights until his name is totally cleared.
A system of anonymous judges, initiated by former President Fujimori, now in exile in Japan, was created ostensibly for the judges' own protection during a time of national turmoil. The lack of accountability, however, resulted in over 800 wrongful imprisonments. According to Paz y Esperanza at least 100 innocent men and women still remain behind bars. This number includes many other practicing Christians like Aquino, Apaza, Gonzalez, and Espinoza.
CSW commends President Toledo's action and calls on him to continue to sign the pardons of prisoners who have been found innocent in order to keep the process moving forward.
Stuart Windsor, National Director of CSW said: "We were overjoyed to learn of the release of these innocent men who have spent so many years behind bars.
"We ask President Toledo to make this pardoning process a priority of his government until every last innocent's name is cleared and they have been reunited with their families in freedom."
For more information, contact Richard Chilvers at Christian Solidarity Worldwide on 020 8949 0587 or 020 8942 8810 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.csw.org.uk