Peruvian human rights groups demand full investigation into allegations of police torture against anti-mining protesters in 2005

With photographs in hand, two human rights groups, the National Human Rights Coordinator, or CNDDHH, and Peru’s Ecumenical Foundation for Development and Peace, or Fedepaz, have demanded a thorough investigation into allegations of the torture and kidnapping of at least 29 anti-mining protesters by police in 2005.

“International treaties demand that torture prevention mechanisms be established, but, to this day, Peru has yet to implement them,” said Ronald Gamarra, Executive Secretary of the CNDDHH, who has filed a lawsuit and is demanding government action.

“Torture is unacceptable, and there is no justification for it,” Gamarra added. “It is characteristic of a barbarian state. We can’t confuse (human) rights with terrorism. We can’t allow those who make legitimate use of their right to protest to be repressed.”

Published and broadcast widely in the Peruvian media, the photos — which were likely taken by police and were sent to Gamarra’s organization anonymously — show men and women with plastic trash bags pulled over their heads and their hands tied behind their backs, and police officers posing with some of the women’s underwear.

Immediately after the shocking photos were published, Premier Yehude Simon promised to personally review the torture allegations. Human rights advocates maintain that police have failed to investigate or reveal the names of officers involved.

“I am completely horrified by what I have seen,” said Simon. “We, as a government, can’t allow anyone to harm anyone else. The police, businessmen, workers, no one can use violence to impose their ideas or whatever they believe in… they have committed a very serious error, they have violated a (human) right, and have given themselves and their institution an appalling image.”

The victims, at least 29 members from isolated outposts in the northern district of Piura, were kidnapped and brutally beaten by police and the company’s security team in August 2005. In Peru, low wage-earning cops often moonlight for private companies, such as mines.

The residents, who had been protesting against the development of the $1.4 billion Rio Blanco project, left their communities a week prior to the kidnappings, and set out, on foot, for the Majaz mining camp. Expecting to meet with a high level negotiating commission, they were instead greeted by police and tear gas-shooting choppers.

Taken inside the camp, stripped of their clothing and blindfolded, the protesters – including two women and a 16-year old – were physically and psychologically tortured. Evidence of this torture has been documented by doctors from Physicians for Human Rights, a NGO that mobilizes health professionals to advance health, dignity, and justice and promotes the right to health for all.

“On the first day they stripped us of our clothes and made us walk barefoot and covered our heads with some bags that had been doused with tear gas and that burned our faces,” said Julio Vásquez Calle, a journalist that was also taken hostage and wtinessed the torture. “On Aug. 2, 2005, they only gave us half a glass of water to drink. The entire day we heard the residents’ cries for help, begging (the guards) to stop torturing them.”

Three days of beatings left Melanio García dead, and 3 others missing.

“The first police report stated that 32 people were detained in the (mining) camp,” said Elizabeth Canya, one of the victims. “But only 29 came back to Piura. A 16-year old was tortured, we have never seen him since.”

When we first reported the torture, said lawyer David Velasco, then-Interior Minister Rómulo Pizarro and Chief of Peru’s National Police, Marco Miyashiro, denied that there had been any irregularities.

“They said that all was calm, that the police officers had acted according to the law,” Velasco added, “but today we see that this is not true, that the facts prove the opposite.”

The Rio Blanco mining project has been at the center of controversy between environmental NGOs and the mining industry since 2003, when it was approved by the Peruvian state. In a 2007 popular vote, nearby communities overwhelmingly said they did not want the mine developed.

Proponents argue the mine will bring $65 million annually in taxes to the region, badly needed social services, and over 12,000 jobs after its planned start-up in 2011. But critics say it will contaminate the environment and jeopardize agriculture, which fuels the local economy.

The mine was purchased in 2007 by Zijin Consortium of China from London-based Monterrico Metals. Monterrico Metals estimates the Río Blanco project will be one of the largest copper mines in the world during its first five years of operation.

The popular vote and protests that came later have been criminalized by the government, said Mario Tabra, another alleged torture victim. “The Dircote (counter-terrorist police unit) is monitoring us,” and has charged many with terrorism, said Tabra. “Not only in Gaza are people being killed, but also in Peru’s communities.”

The Peru Support Group, or PSG, is also concerned that recent government decisions in Peru will lead to a major expansion of mining in the Río Blanco area and a renewed attempt to criminalise its critics.

In a press release, the PSG reports that a case against 35 environmental and human rights activists and local politicians from the Piura region has recently been reopened.

Accused of terrorism for their involvement in the September 2007 non-binding referendum, charges were eventually dropped a year later, because they lacked legal basis.

But, reports the PSG, “it appears that the regional office of Piura’s Public Prosecutor has over-ridden this decision and passed the case on to Dircote to continue the investigation and eventually bring charges against the accused before the regional court.”

“The timing of the decision to re-open the case on Dec. 24, 2008,” reads the PSG press release, “coincided with Peruvian Government’s approval of Monterrico Metals’ request to acquire an additional 27 mining concessions located in the Provinces of Huancabamba and Ayabaca around the eight core mining concessions of the Río Blanco Project, representing a total area of some 28,000 hectares.”

The request, which was filed by majority shareholder Zijin in April 2007, was formally approved by Supreme Decree last December.

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