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Peru's Rights Abuses Beg a US Response

Recent trial of soldiers involved in death squad leaves doubts about whether sentences will stick

WITH a Cabinet crisis and three rural provinces placed on states of emergency due to renewed guerrilla activity, the heinous events of July 18, 1992, still should be haunting the government of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori.

That night, nine students and one professor from La Cantuta University were kidnapped by members of the country's armed forces. The following dawn, the 10 abductees were taken to an army firing range on Lima's outskirts and executed at point-blank range.

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The legacy of this brutal crime has simmered, damaging the reputations of both the country's notorious armed forces and its autocratic president. Since the La Cantuta killings also threatened Peru's standing with international investors, the Fujimori government has expedited a campaign that would appear to address international human rights concerns; in reality, it merely has protected high-ranking officers implicated in the killings.

Despite stonewalling by Mr. Fujimori and his military over the past 18 months, the persistence of local human rights investigators and courageous journalists was enough to embarrass reluctant authorities into charging 10 Army officers, including two generals, with murder. But the issue of how justice would be served was then disturbingly resolved on Feb. 8, when the parliament passed legislation that made it easier for the Fujimori-packed Supreme Court to send the La Cantuta case to a military rather than a civilian tribunal.

This outrageous action prompted the resignation of the entire Cabinet, including Prime Minister Alfonso Bustamante. While Fujimori, in an act of petulant arrogance, accepted Mr. Bustamante's and three other resignations, he refused to do so with the remaining 10.

On Feb. 21, after a three-day trial held behind closed doors, nine soldiers, including one brigadier general, received prison sentences ranging from 1 to 15 years for their parts in the killings. The guilty verdict was only the third time, out of hundreds of cases, that a military court convicted uniformed personnel charged with such abuses. However, serious questions remain as to whether even these lenient sentences will be carried out. In the two previous human rights cases where the military convicted its own, guilty soldiers were allowed to serve their time on military bases in standard housing. In one instance, an officer convicted in 1992 for authorizing the 1985 slaughter of 30 people, is paying his debt to society by remaining on active military duty.

The trial, sentences, and most important, the handling of the La Cantuta case by authorities, represents an ongoing coverup designed to protect the military's highest-ranking members. Armed forces headed by Gen. Nicolas Hermoza Rios - who, with Fujimori's consent, paraded his tanks menacingly through downtown Lima last April in an attempt to halt the investigation - and the chief of the intelligence service, Vladimiro Montesinos, have been accused by an exiled former Peruvian general of having authorized the creation of the La Cantuta death squad.

The Army prosecutor exonerated top Army brass by saying that the killings represented a ``clandestine operation, without the participation of the high command.'' However, the truth is that for decades the centralized Peruvian military has engaged in a policy of systematic terror. Fedor Munoz, brother of the slain professor, agreed with the conclusion of many independent observers, calling the tribunal a ``coverup in favor of the intellectual authors of the killings.''

Assistant Secretary of State Alexander Watson, during a friendly January visit to Lima, reiterated that relations between the United States and Peru remain cordial. Although the Clinton administration froze $40 million in military and related aid on human rights grounds last year, Lima still received $137 million in grants. Unfortunately, Washington's optimistic view of Fujimori has, as highlighted by recent events, failed to foster more than a cursory commitment to democracy.

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The state-sponsored coverup of the La Cantuta killings demonstrates that the institutions which replaced those that Fujimori suspended in April 1992's ``self coup'' are mere props for an autocratic state, albeit one that has successfully maintained a democratic facade. It remains to be seen how Washington will respond to the military tribunal's decision. But US policymakers should realize that what occurred in that military courtroom, and the incidents that led up to it, reflect a systematic effort on the part of Fujimori to protect his armed forces.

It is true that Mr. Watson mentioned Washington's human rights concerns before he visited Lima. But in his speech before the Peruvian Center for International Studies he seemed eager to tout Fujimori's meager human rights steps by observing that the US ``carefully'' has noted ``the recent positive developments in the human rights situation in Peru.''

The assistant secretary failed to make a single reference to La Cantuta or other ongoing instances of human rights abuses. Instead he chose to speak in generalities except to specifically praise the Fujimori regime, thereby all but guaranteeing that La Cantuta would experience a near-whitewash. Unlike court-martial proceedings in other countries, cases in Peru's controversial military tribunals are closed to public scrutiny. By allowing the military to act as judge and jailer, the chilling autonomy with which it historically has operated will be maintained, Fujimori's statements to the contrary notwithstanding.

Nothing less than a complete halt in all funding for Peru is required unless Washington means to subsidize Fujimori's hyphenated democracy and further undermine US democratization efforts abroad. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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