When formal negotiations began last week with Tupac Amaru guerrillas in Lima, Peru, it was good news to more than the families of 72 hostages held by the terrorists inside the Japanese ambassador's home in Lima. Outside the diplomatic compound lives are at stake as well, including those of more than 100 evangelical Christians. They are caught in a justice system paralyzed by Peru's long battle with terrorism. As the two-month-old crisis fades from headline news outside Peru, its implications for the country's future are just coming to light.
Alfonso Wieland of Lima's Peace and Hope Association says he has been following the cases of 102 evangelical Christians currently imprisoned. He says they have been wrongfully accused of terrorism by government forces intent on eradicating Marxist Tupac Amaru fighters and the Maoist Shining Path. Recognizing the injustice, the National Congress last year established a commission to consider formally their requests for pardon, along with the cases of 500 others.
Since the hostage crisis began, however, the work of the commission has been postponed. Public Defender Jorge Santistevan promised to submit new lists of prisoners eligible for amnesty in January but failed to do so. A statute of limitations sets the commission to expire within six months unless Peruvian lawmakers extend its charter.
Prisoners play a pivotal role in the hostage crisis because Tupac Amaru's central demand is the release of 400 incarcerated comrades. President Alberto Fujimori said he would not exchange prisoners for hostages even as he acceded to a plan for talks with the rebels, announced last week. Mr. Fujimori has maintained a steely resolve to end the crisis without compromising state security, even though his brother Pedro is one of the hostages. The government is reluctant to grant amnesty to anyone, however remotely associated with terrorism, while foreign dignitaries, businessmen, and its own government officials are being held.
The standoff has led human-rights groups to reexamine the condition of Peru's prisons--which are among the harshest in the world. The activists fail, however, to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent who are enduring them.
The jailed evangelicals, in most cases, are farmers or villagers accused of supplying rebel groups. In some cases, they may have been forced by guerrillas to do so at gunpoint; in others, they were falsely accused and rounded up without due process, human-rights activists say.
Saul Tito was released from prison last October under the amnesty law, along with 14 other Christians. A math teacher and member of the Baptist Bible Church in Lima, he was arrested in 1993 carrying nothing more incriminating than his Bible. Later he was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment for working with Shining Path, a charge he denies.
The Peace and Hope Association's Mr. Wieland told the news service Compass Direct that prison conditions have deteriorated for both the guilty and the innocent since the hostage crisis began. Visits from family members and clergy have been suspended. Worship services and Bible studies, which Mr. Tito said were growing during his incarceration, have ended.
"It could get much harder to secure pardons and prison conditions could get much worse. All of this will hurt the innocent," said Mr. Wieland.
It is the guilty who've gotten the most news media sympathy, however. An ABC News report suggested solitary confinement for Tupac Amaru leader Victor Polay had "broken his spirit."
Liberal human rights activists in the United States have mounted a campaign to free Lori Berenson, the 27-year-old MIT graduate who is serving a life sentence in Peru's maximum-security Yanamayo prison. Miss Berenson was convicted of treason for her admitted involvement with Tupac Amaru and is jailed in an unheated cell at 12,700 feet in the Andean town of Puno.
Susana Villaran of the National Coordination of Human Rights told The New York Times, "There is a great opportunity here to set hostages free and improve the health of the whole prison population," indicating the terrorists' demands could be a useful bargaining chip.
The International Red Cross, a key mediator between those holed up in the ambassador's residence and the outside world, requested that the government lift its ban on visits to jailed members of the Tupac Amaru. The ban was imposed after the Dec. 17 hostage-taking to prevent contact between rebels inside the residence and their counterparts outside. The humanitarian group also confronted government police who crossed Red Cross safety zones around the residence, irking government officials and Lima journalists.
Newspaper editor Manuel D'Ornellas of the Expreso said the Red Cross had confused the hostage crisis with a war. "When there are two sides at war, it's fine for them to create safe zones," he said in an interview. "But this is a question of armed criminals seizing somebody's house, a fight between good and evil. They should not get in the way."
Terrorist activity convulsed Peru through the 1980s. More than 30,000 people were killed at the hands of Shining Path and rebel groups like Tupac Amaru. Mr. Fujimori, who campaigned to end terrorism with swift justice and harsh sentences, began his crackdown in 1992.
Ironically, the head of one anti-terrorism unit at that time, Gen. Carlos Dominguez, is now among the remaining hostages. A firm opponent of the terrorist groups and an outspoken Christian who helped lead Peru's National Prayer Breakfast last October, he could be the hostage-takers' first casualty, Tupac Amaru leaders have promised.
Gen. Dominguez's campaign led to the arrest of leaders of both the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru during Mr. Fujimori's first term of office and has severely weakened both movements.
It also created special military courts to hear terrorism cases. In these "faceless" courts the accused are not allowed to learn the identity of the judges, to cross-examine witnesses, or to refute evidence presented against them. Under the system many Peruvians were falsely jailed. They were charged with terrorism, in some cases, for unwittingly cleaning the houses of terrorists or for handing over food to them at gunpoint. In 1995, the government released 250 prisoners falsely imprisoned and admitted there could be hundreds more. Also at that time the amnesty commission was formed.
Missionary Ruthie Gutierrez has seen both terrorism and an unjust response to it in the highland town of Huanta. She and her husband left the town, near the birthplace of the Shining Path, 18 years ago for seminary training and did not return to stay until last year because of terrorism. She remembers local police 10 years ago dragging a family with five children into the streets and executing them for the shooting of two policemen. Witnesses saw a lone gunman, believed to be a terrorist, fire on the policemen as they rounded a corner on a motorcycle.
"The family was found hiding under their bed and so they were believed to be hiding something," she said.
All that has changed, she said, under Mr. Fujimori. "Now most terrorists are on the run," she told WORLD.
Mrs. Gutierrez said she was dismayed to learn that a short-term mission trip planned by college students from the United States this spring was in jeopardy because of safety concerns. The hostage situation, she said, "is an isolated case that affects one little block in Lima." In Huanta, she said, people worry more about the way the terrorists have ruined Peru's name in the international community than about renewed terrorism.