Trial Begins for Indigenous Protesters in Peru


After five years of bureaucratic delays and internal contradictions in the Peruvian judiciary system, the trial of 53 protesters in the northern Peruvian jungle town of Bagua has begun. The indigenous protesters, opposed to a dozen decree laws that truncated indigenous territorial rights that had been promulgated by then President Alan García. .

The accused are almost all indigenous leaders of the Awajún and Wampís ethnic groups and leaders of their national organization, the Association for the Interethnic Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP). They include the AIDESEP president, Alberto Pizango, and a nationally prominent Awajún leader, Santiago Manuín. They had been active in a month-long protest, including a roadblock and occupation of an oil pipeline pumping station, when police attacked them on June 5, 2009.

The order to attack came under orders from García’s Minister of the Interior, Mercedes Cabanillas. Shortly before the decree laws that provoked the protests were approved, then US Ambassador Michael McKinley had expressed concern that Peru’s indigenous rights legislation should be modified in order for Peru to comply with the recently signed “Free Trade Agreement” between Peru and the United States. Wikileaks cables have shown an active role of the US Embassy in promoting the anti-indigenous laws.

That violent conflict over two days resulted in the deaths of 23 police officers, 5 indigenous leaders, and 5 local bystanders, as well as over 200 injured, mostly indigenous community members. The police used live ammunition; the indigenous leaders had only hunting weapons.

The Peruvian prosecutors have only charged the indigenous leaders engaged in the conflict, not the police officers nor the government officers who ordered the violent attack, much less the US Embassy officials who encouraged the laws that were being protested.

The presiding judge has refused to allow testimony regarding Peru’s obligations under Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization that protect indigenous territorial rights and render inapplicable the offending decree laws that have since been repealed, without affecting Peru’s position under the Free Trade Agreement. The judge also made some sarcastic remarks about the indigenous leaders, contrasting them with “normal” persons. His comments indicate that he intends to convict them, before the ongoing testimony is complete. Persons charged with serious offenses under Peruvian law are tried by a panel of judges. There are no juries. If convicted, the indigenous leaders could receive long prison sentences.

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