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Peru's hostage crisis: Caught in the crossfire

International | Falsely accused Christians are mixed among legitimately imprisoned communist Peruvian terrorists whose release is the central demand of the hostage-takers; the government's response is failing to separate the guilty from the innocent

Issue: "Drawing the Line," Feb. 22, 1997

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.

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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.

&quotIt 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 &quotbroken 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, &quotThere 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. &quotWhen there are two sides at war, it's fine for them to create safe zones," he said in an interview. &quotBut this is a question of armed criminals seizing somebody's house, a fight between good and evil. They should not get in the way."

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