Defending the defenceless: Peru's most wanted refuses to be silenced
From her jungle hideaway, Teresita Lopez tells Guy Adams why she won't give up fighting for her persecuted people
Friday 21 August 2009
Teresita Lopez is in hiding. "Somewhere in the Amazon" is as much as she is willing to reveal about her current location now she has been placed on the Peruvian government's most-wanted list.
The authorities in Lima have charged her with inciting murder, sedition and insurrection. Nonsense, she says. All she has been doing is protecting the rights of Peru's 350,000-strong Amazonian Indian community and helping them safeguard their traditional way of life, under threat from a President keen to open the Amazon to international mining, logging and oil companies.
"The indigenous people of the Amazon don't ask anything of the government because it has never supported us," Lopez said in an interview. "All we demand is respect for our ways of life, and respect for our rights as citizens to live on our land – where we were born and where we will die."
The tensions in this corner of South America burst onto the international radar in June, with a massacre that became known as "the Amazon's Tiananmen". Dozens of people were killed and hundreds wounded when Peruvian police fired on crowds demonstrating on a highway near the northern town of Bagua Grande against plans to sell swathes of their homeland to foreign-owned corporations.
That spiralled into a political crisis for President Alan Garcia. His popular Prime Minister, Yehude Simon, resigned, apparently in protest at how the whole affair was handled. Now, more than two months after these grisly events, the President's still wobbly government has turned its attention to the business of exacting serious revenge.
Ms Lopez, a community leader from the Yanesha tribe, is just one of the Amazonian Indian's most prominent leaders to have been forced into hiding as a result. She could face life imprisonment if arrested and convicted.
"We have been charged with sedition, rebellion, and insurrection," she explained. "The accusations were announced at a press conference. This violates all legal procedures. The government is effectively persecuting us, the leaders, for working with indigenous people and voicing their demands."
Peruvian authorities have accused her of being responsible for sparking the Bagua massacre on 5 June. But Ms Lopez says she was 900 miles away in Lima on that day.
The basis of the charges against her is that she attended a televised press conference in the capital in May, which prosecutors say helped inspire the unrest. "I have been denounced, and a warrant for my arrest has been issued, for sitting at a table during a press conference," Ms Lopez said. "I didn't even say anything. Imagine if I had!"
The 48-year-old, from the Oxapampa region in central Peru, says she is being sheltered by "brothers, family and colleagues in the indigenous movement". She has been advised to remain in hiding or seek asylum, rather than emerge to clear her name. "I have no possibility or guarantee of defending myself legally because the executive is interfering in what the judiciary is doing," she said.
At the heart of the dispute are 13 laws unveiled by President Garcia last year. They threatened to open 67 million hectares of Peru's undeveloped rainforest to exploitation by foreign-owned logging, mining and energy companies. The Indians were outraged and staged protests to demand they be repealed. Four of the 13 controversial laws have now been dropped. However, that still leaves nine in place.
Stephen Corry, the director of Survival International, a human rights organisation that supports tribal peoples, says that Teresita's case clearly illustrates what is going on in Peru right now. "Garcia's government is determined to sabotage the indigenous movement by driving the real leaders into exile or trying to imprison them," he said.
Alberto Pizango, the leader of AIDESEP, a group representing Peru's 56 tribes, was granted asylum in Nicaragua, along with two colleagues, in the aftermath of the violence on the grounds of political persecution. The Central American nation believes that the men are unlikely to get fair trial in their homeland. The number of Amazonian Indians facing charges – in relation to a massacre they blame on the police – has soared to 120.
Among those being prosecuted, rights groups say, are 48 native Indians who are still receiving hospital treatment for injuries sustained when security forces opened fire in June. Armed guards are stationed outside the medical facilities, so the Aguaruna and Wampi Indians can be arrested and whisked to jail the moment doctors agree to sign their discharge papers.
One indigenous leader, Santiago Manuin, was shot in the stomach at Bagua by at least four bullets. From his bedside, a plastic pouch still draining his intestines, and five AK-47-toting guards at the door, he told the Associated Press last week: "Justice doesn't exist for the indigenous. The government values the police more than us and doesn't want to acknowledge its mistake."
Although Peru insists that just 33 people died at Bagua – of which 10 were protesters and 23 were armed police officers – several observers claim scores of other tribes-people remain unaccounted for. News reporters at the scene estimated the death toll at 60.
Peru's government has faced widespread international criticism in the wake of the killings. Its justice minister was hauled before a UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva this month and the UN special envoy on indigenous rights has called for an independent investigation.
Somewhat belatedly, given its speed in filing charges against the indigenous leaders, Peru this week finally announced action against some of the armed officials who were present at Bagua, charging two police generals and 15 other officers with homicide.
Whether that will be enough to appease Mr Garcia's opponents and repair his reputation remains to be seen. Since the events at Bagua, the President's approval ratings have dropped to 25 per cent, and his former ally Yehude Simon is said to be considering a hostile bid for his job.
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