Peru Reopens Probe Of Forced Sterilizations

by The Associated Press

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Peruvian prosecutors have reopened an investigation into evidence that thousands of women were forcibly sterilized during the 1990-2000 government of Alberto Fujimori, a practice rights groups say was official state policy and constituted a crime against humanity.

Rights groups say they have proof more than 2,000 Peruvian women were forcibly sterilized under Fujimori. But they believe the number is closer to 200,000. Most of the victims lived in rural areas, were poor and barely educated or illiterate.

The goal was to reduce poverty by lowering the birth rate among the poor, who at the time accounted for one in two Peruvians, the groups say.

"It was a premeditated development policy because it was done fundamentally, in areas of extreme poverty, rural and Andean," said Francisco Soberon, executive director of APRODEH, Peru's leading human rights organization.

It was also racist because it chiefly targeted indigenous Quechua speakers, Soberon said.

Alejandra Cardenas of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights said that not since Nazi Germany has a government employed forced sterilization an instrument of state policy.

Officials in the Fujimori administration have denied that women were forced to undergo sterilization and said they signed consent forms. But activists say the women were deceived or threatened.

All related investigations were shelved in 2009, but President Ollanta Humala revived the sterilization cases as a campaign issue before defeating Fujimori's daughter Keiko in a June runoff election for the presidency.

On Wednesday, a senior official from the Peruvian attorney general's office informed the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights in Washington that the chief prosecutor's office, a separate agency, had decided on Oct. 21 to revive the cases.

"It was a surprise," said Cardenas, who was at the meeting. "It was pretty amazing."

The prosecutor who will oversee the case, Victor Cubas, said through a spokesman that he was too busy Friday to answer questions about the investigation.

Cardenas said the Peruvian representative told activists on Wednesday that the government was looking into assuring it would have the necessary resources to reopen all the cases.

"We know that we will have to keep putting on pressure," she said.

The formal resolution by the prosecutor's office on reopening the investigation found merit in the conclusion by the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights that a case it took up indicated crimes against humanity might have been committed.

That could potentially mean another criminal case against Alberto Fujimori, who is already serving a 25-year prison sentence for corruption and human rights abuses related to death squad killings.

In 1999, a year before Fujimori fled into exile amid a corruption scandal, his government reported that 300,000 women had undergone sterilization in the previous five years as part of a birth control program.

Rights activists say they believe Fujimori personally ordered the coercive sterilizations, and three consecutive health ministers carried it out.

One of them, Alejandro Aguinaga, claimed at the time that "all the patients signed consent forms in order to submit to the operation."

Aguinaga was an adviser during this year's presidential campaign to Keiko Fujimori, who when asked about the sterilizations by Humala during a debate responded that the cases had been closed.

The case championed by the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights involved Mamerita Mestanza, a 33-year-old mother of seven who died in 1996 after being pressured into tubal ligation surgery.

"Mestanza was told that a law had been passed and that she and her husband were going to be fined or imprisoned because they had (more than) five kids already," said Cardenas of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Mestanza was thus coerced into signing a consent form, submitted to the surgery, returned to the clinic where the operation was performed complaining of internal bleeding and died a few days later, Cardenas added.

In a 2003 settlement with the rights commission, Peru agreed to pay Mestanza's survivors more than $100,000, provide her children with free education and other benefits.

Six years later, the investigation died when the chief prosecutor's office ruled that neither the Mestanza case nor 2,063 others registered of forced sterilization constituted a severe violation of human rights and thus should be shelved under the statute of limitations.

Associated Press writers Carla Salazar and Martin Villena contributed to this report.

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