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Peru's Lawyers: A High Risk Profession

"In the eyes and ears of the sinister power, all of us are under suspicion." Oiga Magazine Feb 21, 1994, p.5

To defend political prisoners in Peru is a delicate matter. The war that has been going on in the Andean country since 1980 has atrophied the legal institutions because the government has applied the U.S. counter-insurgency policies.

State power is dictatoriay and human rights exist only in dreams. Being lawyers before the military justice system, defending those accused of "terrorism" or "treason to the motherland" (which for the army is synonymous with the insurgency), is a dangerous profession.

Those who were present at the trials of the leader of the Communist Party of Peru (also known as Sendero Luminoso), Abimael Guzman Reinoso, and other political prisoners, suffer psychological torture that is not merely limited to threats. Many of them are now being held in Peruvian prisons, for the "grave crime" of representing presumed members of the insurgency.

With a blindfold covering their eyes, the defense lawyers are taken to the island where Manuel Ruben Abimael Guzman Reinoso is held prisoner. They are conducted in the midst of warnings like the above quoted to the place where the "judicial activities" are to take place. This form of torture takes around 45 minutes on each occasion<%0>.

To reach the island they must travel in a precariously unstable plastic boat for another 45 minutes, surrounded by armed marines and--sometimes--provided with lifevests, "in case of a fall into the sea", as they are told.

The island is called San Lorenzo, and on that island there is a naval base linked to the prison "El Fronton." The government rationalises the security measures taken with the lawyers by saying that the place is related to the military headquarters.

Once the hearings begin, the lawyers are prohibited from communicating with their clients. A hooded attorney -- who sits in front of an investigative official -- sits next to the lawyers, and the lawyers are prohibited from taking part. They are silent statues. This was the way the lawyer Alfredo Crespo Bragayrac was allowed to be with Abimael Guzman Reinoso. He had no opportunity to talk with him about his defense.

Procedures before the Peruvian military justices are done at high risk. They are carried out in military buildings and when a lawyer enters, no one knows if he will be allowed to leave the building or whether he will himself be accused and sentenced as a "terrorist." That is what happened to Dr. Crespo, who is now serving a life sentence imprisonment in a prison in Puno, which is 800 kilometers from Lima.

Someone who wants to legally assist a person accused of being a "terrorist" is in turn accused of being a terrorist, as if the defender of a burgler or killer assumes the same crime of which his client is accused.

In the Rospigliosi Castillo (a building housing the military court) there is a "common room" where all papers sent to the military justice are received. The lawyer is called to a large door, which has a small hole through which the the guard asks: "What is your request?" Once the lawyer answers, he has to give the guard his identification papers and the guard takes them to the superiors. "Only one person is allowed in", he is warned. On the wall of the building, next to the door, there is a notice that says: "The guard has orders to shoot. Don't take the risk."

Once he is inside, he is conducted to an office attended by an official.  The official informs him that his procedure should not be made before the military authority, but instead to another.  No judge shows his face. They have no signatures or names. They only have numbers and keys for "identification".

The Constitution which was approved after the self-coup by the State Government of Alberto Fujimori Fujimori states in Article 2, Number 10, that:
"Peruvians have the right:...

To secret and inviolable private communications and documents:

The communications, telecommunications, or the means thereof, can only be opened, taken, intercepted, or tampered with under express and justified order of the judge, in accordance with guarantees of law. Secrecy should be maintained regarding matters which are different from the matters which are under investigation.

The private documents taken in violation of this standard do not have legal effect."

However, the lawyer Crespo Bragayrac was found "guilty of terrorism" on grounds of accusations from a "repentent" person (that is someone who took part in one group considered subversive and then made a denunciation about real or supposed "terrorists") who produced compromising documents.

The "anti-terrorist" laws were issued recently. For this reason they are not known sufficiently--not even by those who are in charge of applying them. The terms regarding the presentation of appeals are dramatically restricted (for example from 24 hours to 8 hours; these hours don't take into account the times when the offices are normally closed.

The lawyers have to sleep in their offices, because if they receive a notification around midnight they must present their reply before 8 in the morning. Many times they have found, to their unhappy surprise, that they couldn't reply in accordance to the terms because the notification was made early in the morning.

At each public appearance, the lawyers are compelled to make clear that their intervention has only a professional character. Even so, they face great hostility.

In Peru it is required to be a member of the Bar Association in order to practice the profession. This is an advantage from a certain perspective for the lawyers of "terrorists", because this gives some protection. But this protection is not enough to guarantee their integrity. There are more than 40 lawyers in prison, and others have not even been as fortunate. They were simply assassinated or disappeared.

The doctrine of national security is present in the Peruvian Constitution (Articles 2, 5, and 71). One of the consequences is the high risk to the practice as a lawyer.

[Jose Enrique Gonzales is a lawyer and researcher at the National University of Autonomous Mexico (UNAM). He went to Peru on a mission to interview Abimael Guzman on behalf of the office of the US lawyer Leonard Weinglass, for the purpose of preparing representation before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the OAS.]

[Editor's Note: This article presents a little known facet of the hazards of practicing law outside the U.S. when your clients are unpopular. Lawyers in the U.S. have a public image problem, yet people forget that, like all professions, it depends on what you do. Some lawyers are content to be shills for the ruling class and either defend the status quo or actively contribute to the oppression of poor people.  Others have taken a different course and chose to become, as Peter Erlinder puts it, a "people's lawyer." Lenin, Castro and Gandhi all started out as lawyers. As the article illustrates, there are lawyers today whose practice of law defending unpopular clients puts their lives and liberty at risk. Readers desiring more information about the political struggle in Peru should read either La Nueva Bandera, 30-08 Broadway #159, Queens NY 11106 or Emergency Bulletin, IEC, 27 Old Gloucester St., London, WC1N 3XX, England. Please send a donation to help cover postage and printing costs.]

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