Congressional commission deems Garcia anti-protest and deadly force decree unconstitutional

Congress’ Constitutional Oversight Commission has voted to overturn a decree by President Alan Garcia that critics say was designed to snuff out political dissent by, among other things, granting soldiers and police freedom to use their firepower during protests without fear of prosecution for injuring or killing civilians.

Legislative Decree N° 982 was deemed unconstitutional late Tuesday by a 6-3 vote, with two abstentions.

The decree, issued in July 2007 by Garcia without congressional debate or approval, was ostensibly designed to battle organized crime. But among its provisions was a modification to the penal code, making public and elected officials who organize or participate in political protests potentially accountable for extortion and subject to ouster from office. Regional governors and provincial mayors who oppose Garcia immediately accused his administration of targeting them.

Another provision exempted from prosecution “personnel of the Armed Forces and National Police, who in compliance with their duty and in use of their weapons in regulation form, cause injury or death.” Garcia’s administration has fought tooth and nail against efforts by a provincial prosecutor to indict a police officer who allegedly replaced rubber buckshot with live ammo in February and fatally shot down two campesinos during a nationwide farmers strike.

“Social protest and has nothing to do with organized crime. To tipify it as such is clearly unconstitutional. The Constitution already sets rules for high officials. But it is something else to penalize the right to protest,” said Congressman Victor Mayorga, of the leftist opposition nationalist bloc, who cast his commission vote to repeal the decree.

Garcia’s administration wanted to “intensify repression and authoritarianism with these measures,” he said.

The three dissenting votes were cast by lawmakers from Garcia’s ruling Aprista Party, including the constitutional commission chairman, Congressman Javier Velásquez Quesquén, who later told reporters that if the repeal measure is ratified next week by the full legislature, it will provide comfort to drug traffickers and leave Peru with a “disarmed national police.”

“This is a very serious decision,” Velásquez said, “and the plenary must rectify it.”

But if the partisan breakdown of Tuesday’s commission vote is any indication, Garcia’s Aprista Party might have trouble mustering sufficient support to block the decree’s repeal. Two of the six commission votes in favor of repeal Tuesday were cast by members of ex-President Alberto Fujimori’s conservative bloc, including his brother, Congressman Santiago Fujimori, and Congresswoman Martha Moyano, who is usually associated with hawkish law and order positions.

Without the Fujimori bloc lawmakers on his side, Garcia’s party will probably lack enough votes to keep the decree in place.

In the same session, the constitutional commission also overturned decrees N° 983 and 989, which, among the things extended the maximum time a criminal defendant can be held in jail without conviction from 36 months to six years — in violation of rulings by Peru’s highest court, the Constitutional Tribunal, as well as verdicts handed down by the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Garcia’s government is determined to prevent crippling strikes and violent protests, particularly this year, when Peru is hosting international forums, like the Asian-Pacific Economic Forum Summit in November.

His administration, while fending off repeated accusations of authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies at home, has been generally lauded in international circles for maintaining political stability and fiscal responsibility, making Peru one of the economic dynamos for growth and foreign investment in the region.

But even some of his staunchest supporters where taken aback last March when Garcia concluded an official visit to China by expressing support for the Chinese crackdown against Buddhist monks in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.

“The Peruvian people are always on the side of the Chinese and firmly supports China in its just cause for national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Garcia told Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

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