New Internationalist

The NI Interview

Issue 307

The NI Interview
Hubert Lanssiers
Stephanie Boyd talks to a priest and human-rights
campaigner who has the ear of Peru’s President.

Defending the rights of unjustly accused prisnors: Hubert Lanssiers with relatives of los inocentes.
photo by STEPHANIE BOYD

‘Sometimes you have to have lunch with the devil to break through the hard shell, because inside there is something good,’ jokes Hubert Lanssiers of his unofficial role as President Alberto Fujimori’s human-rights adviser. Leaning back in his chair the Belgian-born priest pauses characteristically to take a long drag on an unfiltered ‘Inca’ cigarette, his eyes twinkling through the bluish haze floating atop his desk.

But when it comes to los inocentes – prisoners unjustly accused of terrorism charges against the state – Peru’s foremost defender of prisoners’ rights becomes serious. ‘I would do anything just to get one innocent person out of jail,’ he says emphatically.

With 25 years’ experience of ministering to Peru’s prisoners and mounting a relentless, often risky critique of the country’s judicial system, Lanssiers has managed to do much more. To date more than 400 former prisoners serving between ten years and life on terrorism charges have been freed based on recommendations from the Ad Hoc Committee he heads.

Human-rights groups estimate that more than 1,500 inocentes languish in the country’s prisons under harsh conditions, most of them convicted during President Fujimori’s ‘anti-terrorism’ campaign of the early 1990s. With Peruvians weary of more than a decade of war between the military and Maoist Shining Path guerrillas, the President declared a state of emergency and staged his own coup d’état in April 1992, closing Congress and rewriting the constitution.

Thousands of suspected terrorists were jailed during this period by anonymous military and civilian courts. Judges wore masks to conceal their identities and the state did not have to present physical evidence as proof. Defence lawyers were given little or no opportunity to cross-examine witnesses or present evidence. If lawyers questioned the procedures or verdict they ran the risk of being charged with ‘aiding’ or ‘apologizing for’ terrorism.

In 1996, more than a year after Lanssiers first broached the idea of a judicial review committee, he persuaded President Fujimori to admit publicly that his government had ‘made some mistakes’, and appoint the three-member Ad Hoc Committee (which also includes the Federal Ombudsman and Justice Minister). Since then the Committee has received over 2,000 requests to review cases.

If the Committee concludes that the accused was convicted on insufficient evidence and had no involvement with terrorist groups, it recommends a Presidential pardon. Only the President has the right to pardon prisoners, making Lanssiers’ work extremely delicate.

‘The easiest cases have already been resolved,’ Lanssiers says. ‘Now we’re dealing with the difficult ones.’ But he worries that the Committee will be disbanded before its work is finished – the Government has already extended the original August 1997 deadline, and the clock is set to run out again at the end of this year.

Lanssiers admits that throughout his years of work he’s often felt ‘tired and anguished... but then I tell myself that if I quit the fight, in the morning when I looked at myself in the mirror while shaving, I would not be able to look myself in the eye.’ His favorable position with President Fujimori has made his work – and life – relatively safer and more productive of late. During past governments Lanssiers says he suffered persecution from the military and police, ‘but this in no way means I have sympathy for the police and military now,’ he adds quickly, with a knowing laugh.

‘The state does not have the right to apply the same methods as terrorist movements. I have always said it, always written it, always fought for this – and always been persecuted for it.’ Lanssiers speaks passionately and without bitterness of past years when he was barred from entering prisons and harassed or followed by both the authorities and guerrilla groups. ‘The role of being a mediator – speaking out – is always dangerous,’ he says with a casual wave of his hand.

This sense of conviction mixed with humility has won the priest many supporters at home and abroad. Despite his recent quasi- celebrity status in Peru, Lanssiers has not developed a taste for fame and dismisses congratulations on his recent nomination for a United Nations 1998 human-rights award, muttering ‘it means nothing to me’.

‘The only thing that matters is the inocentes,’ he continues, ‘but if [an award] were to allow me a forum to speak for them, well maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.’

When asked what he will do when his work in the prisons is finished, Lanssiers laughs and says, ‘It will never end. We are living in heroic times, but such heroic times never end.’

‘Come,’ he says, shuffling me past a long wall of books to a shelf with various ceramic pieces. ‘Something I always tell those who are imprisoned is that they must develop a sense of dignity – a dignity that no-one can take away from them.’

Many prisoners preserve and rediscover this sense of dignity, says Lanssiers, ‘not by making “little things”, but instead by elevating their work to the level of art. They express talents that they never knew they possessed, and they’ve made beautiful things,’ he says tenderly, tracing the smooth lines on one of his favourite figures.

The piece is all black and rounded – a man and a woman, their forms joined as one in a tight embrace; their individual lines barely visible. At the base a small child stretches his arms as far as possible around their legs. ‘It represents a man’s dream of liberation,’ he says softly. ‘These works of art were made by people who had never done this before, but now they have realized they are artists, and this... this makes all the hardships [of my work] worthwhile.’

A former intern in the NI’s Toronto office, Stephanie Boyd is currently working for Latin America Press in Lima.

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