Peruvian Guerrillas Fight New Battle in Court
Ruling May Free Shining Path Rebels, Rekindle Fading Maoist Insurgency
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
LIMA, Peru -- When he was arrested in a residential neighborhood here
in 1992, Abimael Guzman was transformed by the Peruvian government into
between a war trophy and a museum exhibit.
The leader of the Shining Path, a brutal Maoist insurgency that terrorized
Peru for a decade, was finally behind bars. Caged in a cartoonish striped
Guzman swore in a video released at the time of his arrest that "you can kill a man, but you can't kill this," gesturing toward the ideas in his head.
For a while it appeared that the former philosophy professor was wrong.
His conviction by hooded judges in a secret military tribunal marked the
start of the Shining
Path's fade from potent insurgency to rural nuisance. Now, however, Peru is bracing for the possibility that a guerrilla leader serving a life sentence for treason may
In recent weeks, Peruvian courts have annulled the first batch of roughly
450 terrorist cases against jailed Shining Path guerrillas, including Guzman
and others tried in
military courts more than a decade ago. The decisions, based on a January ruling that those secret courts were unconstitutional, will grant new trials to an estimated
2,000 guerrillas at a time when the Shining Path is stirring after a decade of dormancy.
Guzman's life sentence was annulled Thursday, awakening deep fears that
a mass release of still-committed Shining Path members could rejuvenate
its military and
political elements on a national scale. Those whose sentences were thrown out will remain jailed pending new trials.
"I am paying the bill for those times by going through this process
with a judicial system that needs a lot of help," President Alejandro Toledo
said in a recent
interview. "I will not permit [a mass release]. My fight against terrorism is there. I'm on the line."
The court rulings are occurring in a new climate of judicial independence
following the authoritarian-style administration of former President Alberto
designed the anti-terrorist laws that are now being overturned. The rulings also come as Peruvians are seeking to come to terms with the conflict, which killed about
30,000 people between 1980 and 1992, through the courts and a national truth commission, which is scheduled to issue a comprehensive report in July. The current
legal challenges and those in the works turn largely on how Peruvians and the courts choose to define the conflict and punish those involved.
Although few Peruvian officials expect Guzman or many other Shining
Path members to go free, they agree that the volume and complexity of the
new trials will strain
the judicial system, which is disorganized, historically corrupt and widely despised for its lack of independence. Even Peruvian security officials who battled the
Shining Path acknowledge that lawyers representing jailed guerrillas have developed a shrewd legal strategy to win their release.
Fujimori, who fled the country for Japan two years ago ahead of human
rights and corruption charges, considered the conflict a terrorist campaign.
lawyers argue that the violence stemmed from a politically legitimate civil war, meaning that different laws and international conventions should apply to its
combatants. Ultimately, they say, the government should resolve the political dispute by granting amnesty to imprisoned guerrillas and 15,000 others still wanted on
terrorist warrants dating from that time.
Toledo, who has promised judicial reform as part of his administration,
used emergency powers to decree a new set of laws and add new judges to
civilian "anti-terrorism" tribunals soon after the court invalidated the Fujimori-era statutes. Those laws and courts will handle the retrials, which will probably start in
early 2004 with the trial of Guzman and nine others arrested with him.
Many of those who will receive new trials have maintained their allegiance
to the guerrilla group, perhaps even hardening their political views during
long prison stints.
A large share have been serving life sentences for crimes ranging from murder to painting pro-guerrilla graffiti on city walls. Diplomats here say that as many as 200
of those convicted in the military courts may be innocent.
Guzman, a former philosophy professor in the Andean province of Ayacucho,
declared war on the state soon after founding the group in the late 1970s.
few years ago from his island prison to a special cell on a naval base here, he has called for a political solution to the conflict since his arrest without renouncing the
"He has not changed his spots one iota," a U.S. official said. "This is going to be an enormous challenge to an institution that is one of the country's weakest."
Last July, family members and supporters of jailed Shining Path members
formed a group called the Popular Movement for Constitutional Oversight
to challenge the
legality of the terrorist convictions. The group's lawsuit claimed successfully that military courts should not have tried civilians, even those involved in armed conflict,
and that the laws themselves were improvised and left largely unwritten.
Manuel Fajardo, the lead lawyer for the movement, which many people
here fear is a political front for Shining Path, said the government frequently
military officers for human-rights violations on the grounds they were combatants in a civil war. But he said they have refused to extend that designation to guerrilla
members, trying them as terrorists instead.
Defining the conflict as a political dispute would be a first step toward
granting amnesty to the imprisoned guerrillas. But the Shining Path never
status during the conflict, and Toledo is unlikely to bestow it now for security reasons even though the retrials threaten to clog the court system.
Fajardo has filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights challenging the "anti-terrorist" courts that will hear the
retrials. He argues that
the new anti-terrorist tribunals are essentially civilian versions of the past military panels, claiming that some of the judges on the new courts were the same hooded
ones involved in the original convictions. He is asking that the defendants be retried in common civilian courts.
A favorable decision by the commission, whose rulings have the force
of law in Peru, could also mean a third trial for Lori Berenson, a U.S.
citizen and former MIT
anthropology student convicted by hooded military judges in 1996 for collaborating with a smaller guerrilla group known as the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary
Movement. In June 2001, Berenson was retried and convicted in one of the new civilian "anti-terrorist" courts that will handle the Shining Path retrials. She is serving
a 20-year prison term.
"We believe that in Peru there is a legal system in place organized
around one idea: keeping these men in prison," said Fajardo, who is not
involved with the
Berenson case. "But what I think we will eventually need is an amnesty law. Peru has a large wound that has not healed, and this would help it do so."
Peruvian officials say the Shining Path, which the State Department
has classified as a terrorist organization, now comprises between 300 and
400 armed members
who operate mostly in three eastern river valleys. While showing signs of regrouping in recent years, using proceeds from a resurgent drug trade in the regions where
they operate, the group nonetheless has only a tiny fraction of its former military capability. The group was blamed for a bombing near the U.S. Embassy in March
2002 that killed 10 people on the eve of a visit by President Bush.
About 2,500 civilian sympathizers comprise the group's political wing,
authorities say, and are providing much of the financing and thinking behind
Gen. Marco Miyashiro, head of Peru's national police anti-terrorism
division, acknowledges that his adversaries are "not stupid" for employing
a strategy that could
swamp the legal system. Moreover, he said, the new trials would provide Shining Path members, many of whom have been held in isolation for years, hundreds of
courtroom venues to air their political views for years to come.
Miyashiro said he did not expect any retrials to end in new verdicts,
saying the proof and witnesses still exist to convict them. But he agrees
with legal experts and
diplomats who say that trying 10-year-old cases with sketchy evidence and hazy testimony will present enormous challenges for government prosecutors.
"I believe the police and the military won this game on the field but now may be losing it at the table," Miyashiro said. "What has developed now is a legal battle."