No quorum, no election: internal tug-of-war straightjackets Peru’s highest court

Three judges did not show up for a scheduled election in Peru’s highest court, sabotaging a vote to choose the new head justice and forcing Judge Carlos Mesía to step aside as interim president.

Mesía, a purported ally of Peru President Alan García, was openly accused by one of his fellow judges of trying to keep a 22-year-old human rights case involving García and his ruling Aprista party from being heard.

The election of a new court president and vice president on the Constitutional Tribunal, or TC, was scheduled for early Monday morning, but only four of the TC’s seven judges showed up. At least five judges had to be present for the quorum vote.

The three absent judges — Ricardo Beaumont, Fernando Calle and César Landa — issued a statement Monday, harshly criticizing Mesía.

“(Mesía) has repeatedly lied by saying that he would not run (for TC President), but as we know, he is a candidate,” the statement said. “This shrouds the Tribunal’s image in doubt, and questions the president’s word and his actions.”

“Because of the lack of transparency, the bravado and grave difficulties … we prefer, by not attending the session today, to break the quorum … and proceed according to regulations, by allowing the longest-serving magistrate, Juan Vergara, to take the chair in order to call the pending elections according to law.”

That afternoon, Mesía called a press conference and announced his resignation, after a closed-door meeting with the judges who did show up for the aborted election. Judge Juan Vergara was designated as the new interim president until Dec. 10.

“Never in the TC’s history has something like this occurred before, and neither the law nor the regulations tell us how to solve it,” said Vergara. “Nonetheless, now that we have granted the three absentee judges’ request, I hope that we can move ahead with the election.”

According to Landa, who served as TC interim president until his resignation last July, Mesía is undemocratic and had set his sights on the TC presidency mainly to keep the El Fronton human rights case on the back burner.

“Mesía, when it was time to deal with the El Fronton case, said that the Huanta case was more important,” Landa was quoted saying by opposition daily La Primera. “Then, he put it off until after the APEC Summit, and (again) postponed it until Dec. 20.”

Last week, the TC’s magistrates, unable to come to an agreement on the 1986 El Fronton prison massacre, postponed their decision until Dec. 20. La Primera reported that according to sources close to the Court, only two of the seven magistrates are in favor of a motion to declare the criminal charges as expired.

The motion to declare the 22-year-old case closed, based a statute of limitations, was filed with the Court by former naval officer Teodorico Bernabé Montoya on the grounds that the killings by navy personnel occurred during a mutiny and qualify as manslaughter rather than crimes against humanity, which have no criminal expiration limit under Peruvian law.

If the Court decides that the crimes do not expire, charges could be brought against García, who ordered the intervention, and his Vice President and former Vice Admiral Luis Giampietri, who as the naval officer in command took part in the military operation to put down the prison riot.

On June 18 and 19, 1986, a year into García’s first presidency, Shining Path insurgents imprisoned in the El Fronton island and Lurigancho prisons and the Santa Barbara women’s prison declared an uprising. Many of the prisoners had not yet been sentenced or tried. The prisoners took hostages and in some cases were armed.

The uprising was timed to embarrass President García, who that same week was scheduled to host the 172nd Socialist International Congress. García felt pressure to solve the prison situation as quickly as possible before international leaders arrived in Lima. He authorized the Republican Guard to quell the riot at Santa Barbara, the Army and Republican Guard to Lurigancho, and the Navy to El Fronton. The final result was close to 300 prisoners dead — two women at Santa Barbara prison, 124 inmates at Lurigancho, of which more than 90 were executed, and about 138 at El Fronton, including three marine infantrymen and one prison ward held hostage.

The standoff between prisoners and the Navy at the maximum security prison on El Fronton island, led to an attack by the Navy from helicopters and landing craft with hand grenades, tear gas and weapons to tear down the prison buildings. The attack began at midnight and ended shortly after dawn. A handful of prisoners survived, and graphic descriptions of the siege were given by one of the prisoners who was not a Shining Path insurgent.

The victims were targeted by the Navy for alleged ties to Shining Path guerrillas, which initiated a violent campaign in 1980 to overthrow the Peruvian State.

According to a cable from the Secretary of State in Washington sent to U.S. embassies across Latin American shortly after the massacre, “at least 100 prisoners were summarily executed when police and armed forces re-asserted government authority at three prisons.”

“There is no doubt that he must have authorized the original counterattacks in the prison and he could not have been under great illusions about the manner in which the military or police would handle this,” reads the cable.

“The large numbers of those actually executed may indeed have been a shock, but it particularly became a problem for (García) when it became apparent that it had begun to have adverse implications for him personally, his presidency, or for his international leadership aspirations.”

In 1987, a year after the events, a Naval court declared that the naval personnel were not guilty of human rights violations, and the Navy’s Permanent War Council confirmed the verdict. Two years later, the navy closed the case.

Almost 16 years after the events, in 2002, marine infantry involved in the attack told Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that their orders were to kill all the prisoners. Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, CVR, considers García politically — not criminally — responsible for the prison deaths. Garcia has steadfastly denied any political responsibility for the killings.

In 2007, for the third time, the Special Attorney’s Office on Forced Disappearance, Extrajudicial Execution and Exhumations of Mass Graves closed the investigation into the alleged responsibility of García, former members of his cabinet and top-ranking military officers in the El Fronton massacre. Human rights organizations representing the victims’ relatives and some of the survivors appealed against the decision. The appeal remained pending at the end of the year.

Tough the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has urged the Peruvian government to hear the case of human rights violations at El Fronton, the case has been plagued by delays.

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