Peru’s Possible Prison Presidency

In the 1980s, Hugo Bustíos was a photojournalist working in Ayacucho, a province in Peru that was then under martial law. The army was waging a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against the Maoist rebels known as Sendero Luminoso, or the Shining Path. Mr. Bustíos’s work as a reporter made him an inconvenient witness to atrocities committed by both sides, and he had received numerous death threats.

In 1988, he was ambushed in broad daylight by a military patrol. He was gunned down, and his body was disfigured by a grenade explosion, to intimidate others.

More than 50 journalists have been murdered in Peru since the country returned to democracy in 1980; scarcely any case has been brought to justice. Yet the assassination of Hugo Bustíos refused to go away; it was taken up first by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and later by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Progress in the investigation was glacial, but finally, more than a quarter-century after his death, a trial is taking place. But that is the least extraordinary thing about it, because the man in the dock could be the country’s next president.

Gen. Daniel Urresti, known at the time of Mr. Bustíos’s killing by the pseudonym Capitán Arturo, was the intelligence chief at the army base in Huanta, Ayacucho. General Urresti was charged last year with ordering the journalist’s killing. If convicted, he faces 25 years in prison.

At the same time, General Urresti has been chosen as the presidential candidate for the country’s ruling party, the Partido Nacionalista del Perú, in the general elections scheduled for April 10.

If this were not outlandish enough, General Urresti’s running mate is Susana Villarán, a prominent human rights activist. Between 2002 and 2005, she served as commissioner of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights — the very organization that helped bring the Urresti case to justice.

Such unlikely stable mates are less uncommon than you might think: Parties are weak in Peru, and politicians have little compunction about switching sides. But even by Peruvian standards, Ms. Villarán’s vice-presidential run is shamelessly opportunistic. Mr. Bustíos’s widow, Margarita Patiño, has accused Ms. Villarán of a betrayal that “insults, vexes and outrages the families of the victims of grave violations of human rights.”

I knew Hugo Bustíos well. We worked together in the mid-1980s in Huanta.

Shortly after my colleague was killed, I became the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and in 1990, along with Human Rights Watch and the Center for Justice and International Law, we got the Bustíos case referred to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In 1997, the commission demanded that the Peruvian government begin an independent, impartial investigation so that those responsible could be brought to trial.

The case remained stalled because President Alberto Fujimori’s government had passed an amnesty law giving immunity to military personnel implicated in human rights abuses during the emergency. It was not until 2001, when a truth commission was appointed, that the Peruvian government finally agreed to investigate 165 cases, including the murder of Mr. Bustíos. In 2007, a court sentenced two officers for the crime; but in 2009, one of those convicted implicated General Urresti as having taken part in the killing.

General Urresti denies the charges, and insists that the prosecution is politically motivated — designed to block his presidential ambitions. For her part, Ms. Villarán has said that, despite past doubts, she is now convinced of her running mate’s innocence.

I had never seen the general in person until last December, when I testified at his trial, but he has been a controversial public figure in Peru for some time. In 2014, he was appointed interior minister by President Ollanta Humala — who was himself an army officer during the “dirty war” — even though the general was already under investigation for the Bustíos assassination. He lasted only eight months in that post — forced to resign after criticism of police brutality during protests last year. Yet General Urresti’s combative style in television appearances made him popular.

By perverse coincidence, the court is expected to give its verdict in the Urresti case just as Peruvians go to the polls in the first round of April’s elections. Voters thus face not only the bizarre prospect of a presidential candidate who alternates campaigning with televised court appearances, but also the theoretical possibility of an elected president governing from prison.

He is unlikely to win, but that may not be the prime objective of his candidacy. By anointing General Urresti as his political successor, Mr. Humala seemed to exculpate a suspect under indictment. Peru’s judges are not renowned for their independence and integrity; the presidential endorsement can certainly be seen as an attempt to influence the course of justice — and indeed could compromise the trial’s impartiality.

The effort to install an ally in office may be a quid pro quo for the departing president. The first lady, Nadine Heredia, is under investigation by prosecutors on possible charges of money laundering undeclared campaign funds and of transferring millions of dollars into secret personal bank accounts overseas. (The president himself has immunity from prosecution, which could only be lifted by an act of Congress after he leaves office.) Mr. Humala will leave the presidency with miserably low approval ratings; his sponsorship of the candidacy of General Urresti could be seen as a desperate final attempt to shore up his political standing.

It goes without saying that those who aspire to high public office should be free from suspicion of criminal conduct. That is clearly not so in the Urresti case, and that undermines Peru’s fragile democracy.

Worse, General Urresti’s candidacy seriously interferes with the administration of justice. That subverts Peru’s decades-long struggle to come to terms with its dark past of crimes against humanity.

Sonia Goldenberg, a former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.

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