Criminalisation of Social Protest
Under authoritarian former President Alberto Fujimori (1990 – 2000) the government sought to subdue popular dissent through the use of anti-terrorism legislation. Though primarily aimed at clamping down on insurgent activity, these laws - implemented by anonymous, hooded judges and military courts - enabled the authorities to convict perceived opponents and to typify them as “terrorist” sympathisers.
Following Fujimori’s downfall, this legislation was overturned by the Constitutional Court and new spaces for legitimate social protest opened. Though Peruvians can today largely participate in public demonstrations without fear of reprisal, concerns remain over the number of criminal investigations initiated against community leaders and other organisers of protest activity.
Rights advocates highlight a series of legislative decrees passed by the investor-friendly administration of Alan García (2006 – 2011) as a key development here. This legislation dramatically broadened the definitions of a number of serious crimes, including extortion and coercion. Under the new penal code, many types of legitimate protest activity technically constituted criminal acts.
Local organisations and community leaders report that this legislation has enabled authorities to target those involved in protest activity against mines, dams and other large investment projects. As such, those taking part in the demonstrations can find themselves facing charges of extortion, inciting violence and disturbing the public order. A leaked US diplomatic cable from 2006 suggests that some mining firms may also seek to encourage investigations.
Even where charges are later dropped due to lack of evidence, the very process of being investigated can be highly intimidating for those arrested. Protests typically take place in some of Peru’s poorest regions, where people have little formal education, speak Spanish only as a second language, have little idea of their rights, and, have no access to legal counsel. According to community leaders in Espinar in southern Peru the fear of becoming embroiled in criminal proceedings has deterred some locals from participating in legitimate political demonstrations.