IN record time, a military court in Lima has sentenced nine members of Peru's armed forces to prison in an effort to resolve one of the country's most controversial cases of human rights abuse.
The case, popularly known as ``La Cantuta,'' concerned the July 1992 abduction and murder of nine students and a professor from the university of that name. Four enlisted men and two majors bore the brunt of the blame, receiving between 15- and 20-year prison terms.
Peruvian government officials are hoping the unusually swift and tough sentences handed down by the closed military court will appease Peruvian and international human rights groups pressing for La Cantuta's resolution. But things may not prove so simple.
Yesterday, relatives of the murdered students kept up their peaceful protest outside Lima's central court. Wearing black armbands and carrying poster-sized photographs of the dead, they called the closed trial a farce. They will now seek justice, they say, at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica.
The decision two weeks ago to try the Cantuta case in a military court unleashed a storm of protest in Peru and outside. It was widely accepted that members of Peru's special forces and intelligence services, constituted as a death squad, were responsible for the killings. But allegations confirmed by high-ranking military officers implicated Gen. Nicolas Hermoza Rios, commander-in-chief of Peru's armed forces, and Vladimiro Montesinos, President Alberto Fujimori's powerful intelligence adviser, as the leaders of the operation. Both men have been called to testify before a civilian judge next week.
Sources quoted in two Lima news magazines said Peru's top military leaders had threatened Mr. Fujimori with a coup if he allowed the case to be heard publicly. Fujimori had reason to take that kind of threat seriously. Last April, General Hermoza took his tanks to the streets of Lima and verbally intimidated elected representatives who were attempting to compel him and other military officers to give evidence to a congressional commission.
In the Cantuta case, the Peruvian president was caught in the cross-current of two powerful forces: the military and the US. The US has long taken a particularly serious view of the affair. Leading congressman Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, of the Senate Foreign Operations subcommittee, have conditioned their approval of economic assistance to Peru on the resolution in a civilian court of the case.
The congressmen have called for ``concrete evidence that the Peruvian government is committed to judicial and constitutional reform,'' and more specifically, for an ``independent investigation into the La Cantuta case.'' Alexander Watson, US assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, repeated that call in a three-day visit to Peru in late January.
For Peru, the disbursement of some $105 million in economic support and military financing, pledged to the country but frozen since April 1992 when Fujimori dissolved congress and suspended the constitution, is on the line.
SINCE then, Peru has clawed its way back into the good graces of the international community, holding nationwide elections for a new congress in November 1992 and for local governments in January 1993. Both electoral processes were declared free and fair by the Organization of American States. Later, on Oct. 31, 1993, a new Constitution drawn up by congress was narrowly approved in Peru's first nationwide referendum. Fujimori took the opportunity of proclaiming that Peruvians, for the first time, were experiencing ``genuine democracy and popular participation.''
But that Constitution - in force for less than two months - was violated when Peru's Supreme Court bowed to pressure from the executive and legislative branches and diverted the Cantuta case to a military tribunal. The decision provoked unanimous condemnation by jurists, opposition politicians, and the media at large.
``Important though justice in the Cantuta case is, concern has now shifted to the judicial sphere and to the independence of the courts,'' said Francisco Eguiguren, director of the Andean Commission of Jurists, a human rights group.
That also seems to be the view of the US State Department. In a hastily issued communique, it regretted the abrupt interference by Peru's legislature in Supreme Court procedures and urged the Peruvian government ``to show total respect for the separation of powers and judicial autonomy enshrined in the Constitution.''
While Monday's sentencing will take the Cantuta case off the front pages, some commentators say the longer-term implications are sinister. ``What this incident has done is underline the relationship between civilian and military power,'' said Lourdes Flores Nano, a leading congresswoman. ``Mr. Fujimori has become a puppet of the military - they're walking all over him.''