New day in court for Shining Path insurgency in Peru
BY LUCIEN O. CHAUVIN
Special to The Herald
LIMA -Peru is gearing up for a repeat of the ''trial of the century,'' as the 1992 court case against Abimael Guzmán was called.
Guzmán is the founder and leader of the Shining Path, a Maoist insurgency that declared war on the Peruvian government in 1980. The Shining Path ran rampant over large chunks of Peru for 12 years until Guzmán was arrested in September 1992, summarily tried and sentenced to life in prison.
The party quickly unraveled, and the National Antiterrorism Police estimate that today it has only 300 armed fighters in pockets deep in the country's jungle.
Despite the collapse, the Shining Path never died, and legal challenges are now giving Guzmán and his top deputies another day in court.
Guzmán's original court case was annulled on March 19, and new charges were filed against him five days later.
In his first interview with the judge in the case, Javier Llaque,
on March 28, Guzmán accepted the allegation that he founded the
Shining Path, but he denied any
responsibility in the deaths and destruction caused by the party since 1980.
Under Peruvian law, trials should be held four months after charges are filed, but there is a legal provision for complicated cases, giving prosecutors an additional eight months. That means Guzmán's case may not go to trial until early next year.
''This is a fascinating and complicated case, because it involves ideology and a chapter in our history,'' said Edith Chamorro, the district attorney investigating the case. "We have to go back in time to fully understand and investigate the charges.''
LAWS STRUCK DOWN
The legal fate of Guzmán and nearly 2,000 other inmates imprisoned on terrorism charges in Peru took a dramatic turn in early January, when the country's highest court struck down a batch of antiterrorism laws passed a decade earlier.
Those laws allowed civilians to be tried in military courts by hooded judges, did not allow defense attorneys access to evidence or cross examination, and permitted life sentences. While the international community and human-rights groups had criticized the old laws for years, it took a challenge by the Popular Movement for Constitutional Oversight to get them overturned.
The movement, which includes Guzmán's lawyer, Manuel Fajardo, gathered 5,000 signatures as part of its legal challenge to the laws. The Constitutional Tribunal, Peru's highest court, accepted the case and ruled in favor of the movement on Jan. 3.
''Every Peruvian, regardless of the charge, deserves a free and
fair trial,'' Fajardo said. ``This isn't about terrorism, but ensuring
that every Peruvian receives equal
treatment under the law.''
Experts on Shining Path in Peru see the movement, and other groups that have sprouted in recent years to defend Shining Path prisoners, as a new stage in the party's development.
Raúl González, a sociologist who has studied the Shining Path for years, says Guzmán and the leadership know they have lost on the battlefield, so they are trying to win in the courts. ''Their legal defense is solid, picking apart the laws and, whether people like it or not, easily demonstrating that they are unconstitutional,'' González said.
Guzmán's trial will give Peruvians an opportunity to relive a chapter in the country's history that most would like to forget.
A year shy of 70, Guzmán is blamed for creating a party that accounted for more than half of 30,000 deaths and 8,000 disappearances between 1980 and 1992 and caused more than $20 billion in economic damage.
The decision to strike down the laws also opened a new window for Lori Berenson, the U.S. woman convicted of belonging to a smaller rebel group, the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. Berenson was tried in 1996 and sentenced to life. She was retried in 2001, found guilty again and given a 20-year sentence.
Her case is currently before the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a branch of the Organization of American States.
Peru's justice minister, Fausto Alvarado, has pledged to try Berenson a third time if the court rules that her retrial violated due process. Berenson always has maintained her innocence.
According to the National Antiterrorism Police, the Shining Path carried out about 300 terrorist acts last year, including a car bombing near the U.S. Embassy in Lima. The explosion came on the eve of President Bush's visit to Peru. More than 100 people were arrested on terrorism charges.
Most Peruvians in public-opinion polls see no need for new trials, especially for Guzmán. More than 60 percent reject the court decision to overturn the antiterrorism laws, seeing it as an opportunity for people accused of subversion to go free.