Peru’s government has modified an article in the Penal Code that critics say will allow police and the military to use deadly force without facing any consequences.
The modification to the law was published in Peru’s official gazette on Monday, carrying the signatures of President Ollanta Humala and Premier Cesar Villanueva.
The new regulation says that members of the Armed Forces and the National Police are “exempt from criminal responsibility” if they cause injury or death through the use of their guns or other weapons while on duty.
Critics say the change is worrisome, and could easily lead to abuse. Police are often brought in to break up protests by rural residents opposed to natural resource projects in the Andes and the rainforest. Those conflicts often become violent, and have in the past led to a number of deaths. Police use live ammunition at all times.
International human rights agencies, including Human Rights Watch, have called on the government to change how it handles protests.
In its statement criticizing the law, the Public Ombudsman’s office recalled that over the past two and a half years, 34 civilians have been killed during social conflicts, and more than 949 people wounded, including 5 military and 357 police.
Forensic anthropologist Jose Pablo Baraybar, who has exhumed the graves of human rights victims in Peru and other countries, said that the modification to the law gives the police and military “complete freedom,” a “blank check.”
Baraybar said police officers do not receive proper training in how to use fire arms, and only get to use their guns three times during their training. “In an institution that is being restructured, you can’t give it a responsibility like this, a greater right than the right that you and I have: the right over life,” he said.
The change in the legislation has also created a rift within President Humala’s executive.
Interior Minister Walter Alban, a lawyer recently appointed to the post, said that the modification was not necessary nor convenient. Alban, who was the People’s Ombudsman (2000-2005), now oversees Peru’s national police force.
The law was proposed by members of Congress, where there was little debate for its approval and, according to Alban, the Executive was unwilling to observe it in order to avoid undermining the police force. The force, shaken with the early retirement of close to 600 officers and an equal number of lower-ranking police in the wake of the Lopez Meneses private security scandal, is also undergoing major restructuring.
“What we can’t disregard, even with the modification, is that the Constitution and the laws in the country do not permit impunity,” he said. “In the Interior Ministry and in the police the message needs to be clear that this doesn’t provide complete freedom.”
However, with this law, some 139 police and military, currently on trial for causing injuries or deaths to civilians, could be released from all charges. According to the Constitution, a law can be retroactive when applied to a criminal case and if it favors the accused.