Peru: Sendero on the Offensive—in Court

Shining Path propaganda leaflet.
Sendero Luminoso propaganda leaflet.

The battleground for Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) is no longer the Andean highlands or the streets of Lima, but rather the nation’s highest court—and this time, the Marxist guerrillas appear to be gaining ground. More than a decade after the arrest of Sendero Luminoso founder Abimael Guzmán and other leaders forced the guerrilla organization to abandon its military quest for power, attorneys representing imprisoned members of the group won a critical victory. The Constitutional Tribunal ruled in January that substantial portions of Peru’s current anti-terrorism statutes are unconstitutional, the newsmagazine Caretas reported (Jan. 9).

Fears that the ruling would open the floodgates to a flurry of legal actions seeking the immediate release of an estimated 1,200 Sendero prisoners drew an impassioned vow from President Alejandro Toledo that Guzmán and others who directed the group’s military operations would never be freed. An estimated 30,000 people were killed during Sendero’s two-decade-long conflict with Peru’s government.

El Comercio (Feb. 14) reported that civic groups sympathetic to the Senderista legal cause view those convicted under anti-terrorism statutes of the early 1990s under the government of former President Alberto Fujimori as “political prisoners” who were denied due process and convicted and imprisoned illegally. At the same time, the Spanish news agency Agencia EFE (Jan. 7) reported that Fujimori, a fugitive from Peruvian justice in Japan, seized upon the ruling to denounce his successor’s “irresponsibility” and charge that the nation’s high court had returned Peru to the “law of terror.”

Peruvian constitutional lawyer Raúl Ferrero Costa told El Comercio (Feb. 14) that the Toledo administration and Congress must move urgently “to approve legislation that deals with this type of case,” as demands for release of prisoners are certain to swell so long as confusion persists about the legality of their convictions. The prosecutions of the Sendero leadership are vulnerable to successful legal challenge because they relied on laws pushed through Congress on an expedited timetable that ignored normal procedures for legislative review and approval.

The Toledo government must bear the blame, however, for ignoring repeated warnings over the past two years that the existing laws would not survive a constitutional test, Caretas observed (Jan. 9). “Despite that, they were not worried about preparing a package of laws to replace the Fujimori-era anti-terrorism legislation. Such neglect is inexcusable.”

The legal challenge is part of a broader Sendero strategy  directed from prison by Guzmán, El Comercio asserted (Jan. 26). The newspaper cited documents obtained by Peruvian journalists that appear to confirm a shift in Sendero strategy since 2000 toward pursuit of a political solution, including grass-roots mobilizations and lawsuits to obtain a general amnesty. “The Senderista strategy has clarified that now its battle is in the political and legal arena,” El Comercio noted.