After the Peruvian Crisis - Government Reform?

In December, the Movimiento Revolucionario Tpac Amaru (MRTA) shocked Peru and the world by capturing hundreds of members of Lima's elite and the international diplomatic corps. More than 70 are still in captivity in the Japanese ambassador's residence. Negotiators met with the leftist rebels yesterday to set an agenda for talks with the government.

The MRTA's actions met with broad condemnation in Peru, whose people have suffered through one of the worst civil conflicts in the hemisphere and long ago tired of the violence wrought by the MRTA and the more notorious Shining Path. Internationally, President Fujimori has garnered support for his approach to the crisis: He has neither capitulated to the demands of the hostage-takers, nor moved in with military force. President Clinton, who met with Mr. Fujimori last Monday in Washington, praised him for "skillfully walking a fine line" in handling the crisis and urged him to seek a peaceful solution without bowing to terrorism.

But what will happen when the crisis is resolved and CNN and other international press crews depart? Can Peruvians and those in the international community who have stood by Fujimori through the confrontation expect that he will forswear the abusive and antidemocratic tactics that have marked much of his reign?

There is every reason to believe he will not. Egregious human rights violations in Peru - by both guerrilla groups and military and police forces - have declined significantly since the high point of the Shining Path insurgency. But every time rebel groups show signs of resurfacing, the military is quick to return to the tactics of the 1980s and early 1990s - disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and unjust detentions. Absent serious international pressure, Fujimori and his government lack both the political will and the democratic institutions necessary to see that justice is served in the aftermath of the current crisis.

If the past is any indicator, the Peruvian military and intelligence services, on the defensive for not thwarting the MRTA's action, are already preparing to launch a crackdown on those they deem to be government opponents - including citizens who engage in social protest and speak out on behalf of Peru's poor majority.

Their prospects for just treatment aren't promising. As in the past, scores of individuals will likely be arrested and presented as terrorists, before trials even take place. Those detained on terrorism charges will join some 5,000 Peruvians already caught in the Kafkaesque nightmare of Peru's justice system, in which one is presumed guilty and has few opportunities to prove otherwise. Special civilian and military courts - where everything from the identity of judges to the evidence presented against the defendant are secret - violate basic international standards of due process. Prison conditions and restrictions are among the harshest in the world. Some of those arrested will be released for lack of evidence - two, three, or four years later. Most will languish in Peruvian jails, alongside hundreds of innocents already imprisoned.

And what will this crisis mean for Peru's already battered democratic institutions? Fujimori is handling this crisis as he has managed his government, concentrating decisionmaking power among himself and a closed inner circle of advisers, many of whom hold no public position and hence are not accountable for their actions.

Since the April 1992 autogolpe, or presidential coup, Fujimori has extended his control over the legislative and judicial branches. The Peruvian Congress is subservient to the president and prone to passing "midnight laws" at odd hours and bypassing existing procedures and debate. One such law was the sweeping amnesty passed in June 1995 for all civilian or military personnel under investigation or imprisoned for human rights violations committed since the Shining Path launched its armed revolt. The amnesty emboldened the military and released members of the armed forces who participated in the country's most notorious death squad.

More recently, in the middle of the night, Congress passed a law "interpreting" the constitution to allow Fujimori to run for a third term in office in 2000. These legislative acts, outside the spotlight of public scrutiny, undermine the hopes Peruvians have for open and accountable government.

With attention now focused on Peru, the United States government and others in the international community should speak out forcefully in support of human rights and democracy in that country, as they did after the 1992 autogolpe. If the Fujimori government does not address these issues - along with the poverty that fuels hostility and despair in Peru - then the recent attack may be the harbinger of a new round of desperate violence and repression, rather than the last round of a nightmare that has gone on far too long.

* Coletta Youngers is a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America. Bill Spencer is deputy director.

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