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Democratic Strides for Peru

January 10, 2003

In 1980, the pathological Maoist- inspired guerrillas who called themselves Shining Path began killing Peruvians for the "crimes" of supporting democracy and capitalism. Entrepreneurial peasants who traded their goods in rural town markets, citizens who voted in elections and union leaders who opposed the armed struggle were shot in cold blood. In 1992, the guerrillas came close to toppling the democratic government.

The government's reaction to the threat was radical, and restrictive of democratic freedoms. With Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso, controlling more than one-third of Peru, then-President Alberto Fujimori dissolved Congress and the judiciary. He also adopted harsh anti-terrorism laws that allowed secret military trials, presided over by hooded judges who freely handed down life sentences.

At the time, many Peruvians deemed these laws a necessary and effective evil to deal with a bloody rebellion that had caused more than 30,000 deaths.

Other quasi-government reactions were less excusable. The national security apparatus, led by the sinister presidential advisor and ally Vladimiro Montesinos, resorted to extrajudicial executions of captured suspected guerrillas. Now the disgraced Fujimori is gone, Montesinos is imprisoned and Peru's elected bodies rule again.

Last week, Peru's Constitutional Tribunal, which is senior to its Supreme Court on some matters, took another step toward restoring democracy, striking down some of the remaining controversial anti-terrorism laws. The changes are likely to trigger retrials for some of the more than 2,000 convicted terrorists remaining in prisons.

Peruvians have vivid memories of the bad years, however, and polls have shown that most want to keep the anti-terror laws. The chief fear expressed was that without the laws, jailed leaders of the terrorist organization might be released while awaiting new trials.

Responding to these concerns, President Alejandro Toledo asked Peru's Congress to grant him the authority to amend the old laws to keep the terrorists behind bars but otherwise conform to the democratic standards set forth by the Constitutional Court.

Toledo has come up with a plan that calms fears yet preserves democratic rights. The storms of violence that surrounded the Fujimori years are finally dissipating.

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