Speedy, Secret Military Trial Of Peruvian Rebel Leader Raises Questions of Fairness
LIMA, PERU — A SENTENCE is expected to be pronounced tomorrow against Abimael Guzman Reynoso, leader of Peru's hard-line Maoist guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), although human rights groups are expressing concerns at the way his secret trial has been conducted.
Proceedings against Mr. Guzman and seven other high-level Sendero militants detained along with him Sept. 12 will have taken less than two weeks, something of a record for Peru's notoriously inefficient and ponderous justice system. Under laws that came into force just days before Guzms capture, terrorism suspects now are accused of "treason to the fatherland" and face summary trial by military tribunal rather than civilian court.
For Guzman, this has meant a hearing on the naval fortress island of San Lorenzo, off the coast of Lima. Guzms testimony Oct. 1 took less than four hours - surprisingly brief, given that Sendero's guerrilla war has lasted 12 years and cost 26,000 lives and $20 billion in damage.
"But everyone knows what Sendero Luminoso has done," President Alberto Fujimori said on his return from a surprise visit to San Lorenzo Oct. 1 to check on the trial. "It's sufficient to select two or three representative crimes in order to sentence him."
Guzman gave evidence from a specially constructed courtroom cage, similar to the one in which he was presented to the world's press two weeks ago. Once again he was dressed in a specially designed, horizontally striped suit of the type convicts wore a century ago. Court officials all wore hoods and were identified by number rather than name.
Defense lawyer Alfredo Crespo says Guzman has been treated well by security forces, and there is little domestic protest over either the summary nature of the trial or the conditions of total secrecy in which it is cloaked.
But a group of lawyers from France, Germany, and the United States is in Lima expressing concern over the secret trial. They say it constitutes a "gross violation" of the 1977 protocol to the Geneva Convention and the San Jose Declaration on Human Rights. Peru is signatory to both.
"Here we have the spectacle of a clandestine, summary proceeding against the leader of a political opposition, which is precisely what international norms of law prohibit," says Leonard Weinglass, a lawyer with 20 years of experience in observing similar trials worldwide. "It also violates virtually every principle of fundamental fairness which international treaties call for."
Peruvian politicians, media, and public demonstrators angrily reject what they see as unwarranted interference in the purely internal affair of judging the man President Fujimori has called a "genocidal devil."
Guzman will have the right to appeal before a nine-man Supreme Council of Military Justice, and the verdict will be handed down by Oct. 27. There will be no further appeal. Under current law Guzman faces life in prison, though Fujimori has talked of restoring the death penalty.
Relief and optimism over the rapid dispatch of Guzman is widespread, but Peruvians are braced for a possible backlash. "Red October" is a month of key Sendero anniversaries, traditionally celebrated with orchestrated bombings and killings. Despite few recent large-scale actions, a number of selective killings of civilians and soldiers shows that "it's clearly been business as usual for Sendero this past week," said one Western diplomat.
"Sendero has been decapitated, and they've cut off its feet, but the body is still working," says Michel Azcueta, a respected, moderate left-wing candidate for mayor of Lima and for many years mayor of Villa el Salvador, the capital's largest shantytown.
Sendero has added a disturbing new tactic, dubbed "white terrorism" by the government. A wave of rumors hit the capital's schools, predicting widespread hostage-taking of schoolchildren who would later be swapped for Guzman. Parents besieged centers of education and the government was obliged to issue a statement calling for calm and to reinforce security measures.
The government, at least publicly, says such actions illustrate the desperation of a movement that knows it is doomed. There is no one still at large, it claims, who could readily replace Guzman. And Sendero militants are constantly being netted in ongoing police and Army sweeps.
Peru's government also is aggressively pursuing suspected Sendero militants abroad. A list of more than 70 "ambassadors of terror" has been prepared, and extradition proceedings will shortly be under way, according to Oscar de la Puente, Peru's foreign minister and premier.
But both this list and another of almost 200 alleged shantytown guerrilla supporters contain many errors, according to human rights groups. A number of people cited are "the very same local leaders who have often bravely confronted Sendero," says a leading human rights lawyer in Lima.
"Peru will do itself a grave disservice in the medium term unless legal procedures are seen to be irreproachable," says one Western diplomat. "The last thing Peru needs is a witch hunt."