Peru's democracy 'at an end' says US rights group

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The Independent Online
'PERU'S 12-year-long experience of representative, constitutional government was over.' This is the conclusion that Americas Watch, the US-based human rights organisation, reaches on the palace coup by President Alberto Fujimori on 5 April. Its latest report casts strong doubt on Mr Fujimori's proclaimed resolve to introduce 'real democracy' to a country whose past 12 years of uninterrupted civilian rule had been riven by civil war, corruption and violent death.

Mr Fujimori suspended constitutional rights, ostensibly to clamp down on the Maoist revolutionaries of the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) movement and the drug traffickers who have made the Upper Huallaga valley, in Peru's eastern jungles, the main source of raw material for the cocaine trade. He also closed Congress, declared the judiciary 'in reorganisation' and has ruled by decree ever since.

The Americas Watch report provides detailed evidence of the appalling state of human rights in Peru before 5 April - the security forces and left-wing guerrillas were guilty of systematic abuses against the civilian population - and suggests that things are unlikely to get better, now that any constitutional checks on military actions have been removed.

Mr Fujimori argues that he has given the armed forces, which enjoy complete discretion to operate throughout the country, strict instructions to respect the human rights of civilians; but the report sets out plenty of evidence that the military has never attached much importance to such considerations in the past and is unlikely to do so now.

The report glosses over the absence of popular opposition to the 'coup'. One does not need to go along with Mr Fujimori's views to accept that closure of the Peruvian Congress was not perceived as a great loss by most people. Similarly, the political parties of left and right which protested against the 'coup' found few sympathisers on the streets.

Whether this initial tolerance will last indefinitely must be open to question. As the report demonstrates, there is little evidence that the government has made much progress against Shining Path since 5 April. The guerrillas' response has been to step up their campaign of bombings and assassinations in Lima, and to target the government's free-market economic policies in an attempt to harness latent opposition.

While pursuing his military campaign against Shining Path, Mr Fujimori is attempting to strengthen the hand of the judiciary, which used only rarely to secure convictions of even the most notorious terrorists or drug traffickers. But Americas Watch fears that, in the process, human rights and democratic guarantees are going out of the window. One decree in May, for example, made 'apology for terrorism' - an offence that is not defined - punishable by up to 12 years in prison.

Peru: Civil Society and Democracy under Fire, August 1992