Peru's Jails Find Few Defenders

Arm The Spirit (
Sun, 5 Jan 1997 13:22:02 -0500 (EST)

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Peru's Jails Find Few Defenders Ex-Prisoners Describe Arbitrary Brutality

By Douglas Farah Washington Post Foreign Service Sunday, January 5 1997; Page A20 The Washington Post LIMA, Peru, Jan. 4 -- When journalist Jose Antonio Alvarez and his wife Rosa were arrested in 1992 on suspicion of being Marxist guerrillas, they entered a justice system where summary condemnation and brutal confinement were the norm. When she was released after a year, and he after four years, there were no apologies from the Peruvian government, no offers of reparations, no expressions of regret. "I was essentially kidnapped for more than four years," said Jose Alvarez. "Then, in the end, they said it was a mistake, and I should just get on with my life. There were never any charges against me. It was surreal. I lost part of my life." That experience has been shared by hundreds of other Peruvians caught in President Alberto Fujimori's largely successful drive to defeat two guerrilla groups, Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, known by its Spanish initials MRTA. The harshness of the conditions inside Peru's prisons, where suspects arrested under the anti-terrorism laws can spend years without being formally charged, is one of the chief complaints of MRTA guerrillas now holding 74 hostages inside the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima. The commandos are demanding that some 400 of their comrades, most being held in the same special prisons where the Alvarezes were detained, be freed in exchange for the hostages. The MRTA has repeatedly referred to the prisons as "tombs." Rosa Alvarez said she was held in a cell that measured 6 feet by 6 feet. She was given one meal a day and received no medical attention for seven months, even though she was pregnant when she was arrested. Her daughter suffered a brain lesion at birth. Jose Alvarez and two other men were in a similar-sized cell. He said the three shared two cement beds and were allowed out of the cell for only 30 minutes a day. In all of the special prisons, human rights workers said, tuberculosis is rampant, and insanity among inmates is not unusual because of the isolation. Suicide attempts are common, the rights workers said, usually carried out by inmates banging their heads against the walls. While human rights groups have been unanimous in condemning MRTA's hostage-taking, many human rights workers said they had been pressing the Fujimori government to deal with the problem of prison conditions for years, to little avail. "This is not something MRTA just thought up," said Miguel Huerta of the National Coordinator of Human Rights, a coalition of 47 human rights groups here. "We have raised the issues, the United Nations has raised the issues, Amnesty International has raised the issues. It is all one package. Abysmal prison conditions cannot be isolated from a judicial system whose purpose is to condemn people, not find the truth." "The prison conditions in this country are inhuman," said Enrique Bernales, a former senator who now works with the Andean Commission of Jurists, which monitors regional legal issues. "What is being said about them is not an exaggeration." The anti-terrorism laws -- mandating "faceless" courts, where neither the prosecutors nor the judges are seen, and an especially harsh prison regimen for those convicted of terrorism and treason -- were enacted by Fujimori in April 1992, after he summarily dissolved the Congress and placed the judiciary under executive control in what was called at the time a "self-coup." The laws were enacted as Shining Path and the MRTA were carrying out nationwide campaigns of economic sabotage, assassinations -- often of judges -- and military actions. Coupled with an all-out military offensive against the two groups, the laws helped weaken the insurgencies to the point where they no longer pose a threat to the state. But national and international human rights groups say the laws go too far, allowing rampant abuses with little chance of redress, and violating international treaties and norms. For example, suspects can be jailed for up to six years for "defending terrorism" under an ill-defined law that has been used to silence political opponents, the press and human rights organizations. Jose Alvarez was arrested under that law because he worked for magazines and newspapers critical of the government, although prosecutors produced no articles on which to base the arrest. Suspects in cases of "aggravated terrorism" and "treason" can be held for up to 30 days without any charges being filed. Trials are summary, sometimes lasting only 10 minutes. No witnesses or police can be cross-examined, and lawyers routinely are denied access to their clients until the day of the trial. Only the International Committee of the Red Cross is allowed to visit those charged with treason and terrorism, and since the MRTA assault on Dec. 17, even these visits have been suspended. "Those caught in the system are presumed guilty and have minimal opportunities to demonstrate their innocence," said an August 1996 report by Human Rights Watch/Americas, a New York-based group. "Faceless military and civilian courts, conducting secret trials behind prison walls, continue to sentence Peruvians to decades of imprisonment in life-threatening conditions without offering them the basic judicial process guarantees required by international human rights law." Fujimori, in a May 22 interview with NBC, admitted there were cases "where unjust detentions took place. . . . We recognize such a situation exists, and we are doing all we can." The Alvarezes related their stories matter-of-factly, showing little bitterness over their detentions. "Our trials lasted five minutes, and we could do nothing to defend ourselves," said Rosa Alvarez, 31, as her two daughters played nearby in their modest home here. "Once you are arrested, they say, 'Defend yourself,' but there is no way because you do not know who accused you, you don't know what the evidence is, you have no access to anything. You have no recourses at all." The United States formally criticized the system after U.S. citizen Lori Berenson was arrested Nov. 30, 1995, on charges of terrorism for supporting the MRTA. She was tried and sentenced to life in prison last Jan. 11. She is being held at a prison high up in the Andes, in a cell with no glass on the windows despite freezing temperatures at night. Food is scarce, and the cells are bare. After her sentencing, the State Department said it "regrets Ms. Berenson was not tried in an open civilian court with full rights of legal defense, in accordance with international juridical norms." Of the estimated 5,000 people jailed for crimes of terrorism or treason since 1992, the National Coordinator of Human Rights identified 1,504 as probably being innocent. Of these "probably" innocent suspects, 765 eventually were found not guilty, although most were incarcerated for more than three years. Another 110 were pardoned after their cases were reviewed by a special board. But 598 remain in prison, trying to get their cases reviewed. Thirty-one are fugitive escapees. Rosa Alvarez was among those eventually found not guilty, but not before spending a year in a cell. "For the first four months, we were not allowed out of our cells at all," she said. "In the morning, we would get tea or coffee. Then about 4 p.m. we would get either soup or stew. We could not even get sanitary napkins. We had to bathe naked outdoors at 6 a.m. We had no books, no paper, no lights and nothing to do. It was worse than a nightmare." Jose Alvarez, 33, spent four years fighting to get his case reviewed, and when in the end the state was unable to produce evidence against him he was among the few "pardoned" by the state. He said isolation was the most difficult part. Besides being locked in for 23 1/2 hours a day, prisoners are allowed one half-hour visit from their spouses each month. Children are allowed one 30-minute visit every three months. During the visits, no physical contact is permitted. "That means I saw my children for two hours a year," said Jose Alvarez. "Do you know what that does to a family? Do you know what that does to your mind?" Since his release, Jose Alvarez has not been able to find work. His wife works only intermittently. "It does not matter that in the end you were innocent," he said. "People are afraid to deal with us, afraid that if they are our friends, they can be arrested, too. Solidarity and friendship only go so far." (Source: The Washington Post,

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