In Defense of Political Prisoners

by Lori Berenson

I am saddened to say that in Peru the government’s propaganda against those who stand up for their rights and seek social change continues. New laws have been passed which put greater restriction on social mobilization. And following the March car bombing in Lima, the responsibility for which still has not yet been determined, the government has proposed new anti-terrorist laws which perpetuate the internationally condemned laws pushed through by Alberto Fujimori a decade ago that are in violation of fundamental human rights. On the other hand, recently passed labor legislation to respect the eight-hour workday and overtime pay is not being enforced. It sometimes seems that the only law enforcement that exists in Peru is that which represses.

Once again political prisoners are being abused. In late April, political prisoners were transferred to Challapalca, a jail located high in the mountains in a military base close to the Andean border with Bolivia and Chile at an altitude exceeding 16,000 feet. Several human rights organizations including the International Red Cross and Amnesty International stated strong objections to the opening of the Challapalca jail in 1996. It was originally used for holding common prisoners but seven months ago, early in the Toledo administration, the first group of political prisoners was moved to Challapalca. The health of all prisoners is seriously threatened in that jail, as is their general well being. The Challapalca jail is so remote and so isolated that any abuse can occur there with total impunity — proof of which is that about a year or so ago two common prisoners were beaten to death by prison guards and this incident wasn’t even known until much later. Owing to the cost and the difficulty of traveling there, as well as the difficulty of adjusting to the altitude, visits to prisoners at this jail are minimal.

In addition to continuing threats to move more political prisoners to Challapalca, now that Puno’s high-plane Yanamayo jail was recently repaired, political prisoners also are being threatened with transfer there.

We political prisoners are living in a generalized atmosphere of provocation — problems with the food, harassment of visitors, suspension of privileges, etc. Over the last months, and especially in the last weeks, prisoners’ families and friends and even prisoners’ lawyers as well as human rights workers who visit jails have been threatened and treated with hostility.

When prison authorities remark disdainfully about the presence of international human rights organizations it is because of the pressure that such groups put on limiting the authorities’ impunity. The Justice Ministry claims that the denouncements of abuse by political prisoners are false, maintaining that prisoners’ human rights are respected. This is simply not true. But in a country in which there is little concern if the majority of the population suffers daily violation of their fundamental human rights as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who will care if our rights are not respected, more so because political prisoners aren’t even considered to be human beings?

These latest actions by the Peruvian government are a renewed reprisal against political prisoners who struggle for their rights. I fear for the well being of those prisoners who have been moved to Challapalca, as I do for all political prisoners in Peru who may be abused in any jail at any time. One cannot remain quiet when the government hypes false images of the supposed "danger of terrorism" as represented by political prisoners, and diverts attention from resolving the problems of poverty and the root causes of social unrest.

Coming so soon after the decade of Fujimori-Montesinos repression, I am concerned that the worsening of this current situation and the continued serious infringement of basic rights in a country that calls itself a democracy will cause irreconcilable conflict that will take years to eradicate.

It is necessary these things be known and, as I am able to, I will keep you informed of how this situation progresses. Meanwhile, you can help by writing to Justice Minister Olivera, President Toledo, and the national human rights organizations to demand that the Peruvian government stop the repression against political prisoners and demonstrate respect for human rights by closing the Challapalca jail and moving all the prisoners to other jails.

Thank you.

Requested Action

Please write to the following persons:

Dr. Alejandro Toledo Manrique President of the Republic of Peru Embassy of Peru 1700 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20036 Email: peru@peruemb.org

Sr. Fernando Olivera Vega
Ministro de Justicia
Ministro de Justiciadel Peru Scipion Llona
350 Miraflores, Lima 18, Peru
Email: webmaster@minjus.gob.pe

Dr. Francisco Soberon Garrido
Coordinadora de Derechos Humanos
APRODEH Jr. Pachacutec
980 Jesus Maria, Lima 11, Peru

Lori Berenson is a human rights activist and freelance journalist who has been imprisoned in Huacariz Prison, Cajamarca, Peru for six years and six months. Please visit the web site of The Committee to Free Lori Berenson.

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