Peru casts light on a dark chapter from the past

Last week, victims of two decades of political violence testified in the final hearing before a truth commission.

Florencio Varillas hobbles up to the microphone here and barely manages a whisper as he relives eight years of torment.

"They beat us all the time," he tells the standing-room-only crowd gathered in this colonial coastal town. "They passed electricity through my hands, my elbows. They wrapped us in a wet blanket and beat us."

Swept like thousands of other Peruvians into the vortex of political violence here in the 1980s and 1990s, the high school teacher was arrested on suspicion of terrorism, thrown into jail after he refused to confess, and absolved after eight years in prison that left him partially paralyzed.

In public hearings such as the one in Trujillo last week, Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is gathering testimony about ordinary citizens who died, disappeared, or were imprisoned as terrorist groups clashed with armed forces and police. Almost two decades of violence claimed at least 30,000 lives. More than 4,000 people were arbitrarily detained; nearly 600,000 were forced to leave their homes.

The commission's goals are to fully reveal what happened, document human rights violations, find out what happened to the victims, propose reparations, and recommend reforms to keep this dark chapter from repeating itself.

Given Latin America's history of political violence, truth commissions have been a common occurrence in the region. Peruvian officials have studied past initiatives in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, and Guatemala. "We tried to take advantage of all the positive experiences of other commissions and avoid their problems," explains Salomón Lerner, dean of Peru's Catholic University and president of the commission.

An experiment for truth

Peru's truth process differs from the rest of Latin America's in two important ways that emphasize openness and the quest for justice.

The public statements by victims are a first for the region, notes Lisa Magarrell, a senior associate with the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice, a nonprofit group that provides technical assistance to countries dealing with past rights abuses. "Other Latin American countries took the information from testimonies behind closed doors, and then put it all together and issued a final report," she says. "There was nothing so directly and so publicly involving the victims. It is an experiment for Latin America."

The Trujillo hearing, the final one, was the eighth since April 2002. More than 150 of the thousands of harrowing accounts of murder, rape, torture and arbitrary detention – told by the victims themselves or surviving relatives – have aired on national television. "[The testimonies] reveal for many the degrees of cruelty that were reached in that period," says Mr. Lerner. "At the time, we – at least those of us living in cities – had only indirect news of what was happening.... We did not have a full sense of the atrocities being committed."

The public tellings represent "a first level of symbolic and moral reparations" for the victims of violence, says Carlos Iván Degregori, an anthropologist and member of the commission.

Peru's hearings were inspired by South Africa's truth and reconciliation commission of the late 1990s.

Unlike in South Africa, however, where perpetrators could apply for immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying, the Peruvian hearings are focused exclusively on the testimony of victims.

Will anyone be held accountable?

Last year the Inter-American Court of Human Rights struck down a controversial amnesty law passed by Peru in 1995, which protected military, police and civilian personnel from prosecution for human rights abuses committed in the counterinsurgency war. Now, perpetrators on both sides of Peru's conflict – government forces and terrorists – are subject to prosecution.

"In Chile and Argentina, we're finally seeing opportunities for prosecution now, but only many years later," says Ms. Magarrell. "Because of amnesty laws in those countries, there was a long hiatus for justice." But in Peru, she says, the search for truth and justice can "move forward at the same time."

Officials in other countries are taking note. "There's been interchange between East Timor's commission and Peru's commission about the hearings process," Ms. Magarrell adds. "In Sierra Leone, there's also interest ... in how [Peru's] justice system and the truth commission relate to each other."

In July, representatives from the truth commissions of Sierra Leone, Ghana, East Timor, and Peru met in Mexico City to exchange their experiences. And a Mexican delegation attended the two-day hearings in Trujillo as part of a longer visit to learn from the Peruvian example.

Even without amnesty laws to shield perpetrators, Peru's search for justice won't be easy. The commission will offer its findings to judicial authorities to help them identify specific crimes, but it has no judicial power and no power to prosecute – a limitation that commissioners constantly repeated to victims in Trujillo demanding justice.

If anything became clear during these hearings, it was that ordinary citizens do not trust the country's beleaguered justice system.

"Justice in Peru is not justice," said Faustino Rodríguez, testifying about the 1993 murder of his brother Héctor. "If there is justice, it is for the rich, but not for the poor like me."

In his remarks closing the hearings, even Mr. Lerner echoed the sentiment. "It is necessary for justice in Peru to be brought before a tribunal of its own," he said in a tired, gentle voice. "Here we have a great problem."

Some observers worry that without justice for the victims, Peruvians will never be able to put the past completely behind them.

"Once we know the truth, we have to make justice. Only then will reconciliation happen," says Miguel Jugo, executive director of Aprodeh, a human rights advocacy group that has sponsored some of the victims speaking at the public hearings. "If not, we'll see pockets of resentment that will eventually explode."

Hope vs. reality

Ultimately, some commission staffers say that expectations may have to be trimmed.

"We're not trying to get everyone to hug each other," says Iván Hinojosa, a research coordinator with the commission and historian at the Catholic University in Lima. "We're trying to make sure these kind of abuses don't happen again."

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