President Alan García’s attempts to restore the death penalty in Peru for those held to be guilty of terrorism and child molesting has raised hackles throughout the judicial community and among a wide range of religious leaders and politicians. It is widely seen as a populist ploy to maintain the president’s standing, particularly among the poor who suffer most from the lack of citizen security.

Garcia wants to hold a referendum on the issue, a referendum that he calculates he can win. Judicial experts, including the president of the Supreme Court, say that such a referendum would be unconstitutional.

The death penalty issue would drive a coach and horses through Peru’s commitments to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), based in San José, Costa Rica. In its charter, the IACHR, which belongs to the inter-American system under the Organization of American States (OAS), pledges to outlaw capital punishment among member countries. If Peru persists with its attempt to reintroduce the death penalty, it would involve breaking relations with the IACHR.

On account of past human rights violations, Peru already has more than its fair share of problems with the IACHR. Prime among the cases being dealt with by the IACHR are those of Saúl Cantoral, the mineworkers’ leader, who was murdered in 1989 during García’s first government. Cantoral’s killers are thought to have belonged to a paramilitary group, the Comando Rodrigo Franco, with close ties to the then Interior Minister Agustín Mantilla. Another prominent case relates to the killing of Sendero Luminoso inmates in the Castro Castro prison in Lima in 1992, when Alberto Fujimori was president. The IACHR has ordered Peru to pay reparations to the victims’ families. The Peruvian authorities reject this. The IACHR has also been considering the Cantuta murders, also carried out in 1992.

The death penalty was re-introduced under the Fujimori government in 1993 for crimes of terrorism and ‘treason’. It formed part of his clampdown on the activities of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), when the security forces used a range of unorthodox judicial methods to secure convictions. Under growing criticism from the IACHR, Fujimori decided to withdraw Peru from its jurisdiction in mid-1999. Peru rejoined the IACHR – and dropped the death penalty – shortly after Fujimori’s fall at the end of 2000.

Alan García announced his decision to reintroduce the death penalty during last year’s election campaign. Talking tough on crime and terrorism helped swing support his way. It also sought to turn the tables on those who had criticised his first government’s human rights record, highlighted by the 2003 by Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report.

García’s position has been echoed by his vice-president Vice-Admiral (ret) Luis Giampetri, whose own human rights record has come under the spotlight as the officer in charge of operations when scores of Senderista inmates at the El Frontón island prison were killed in 1986. Giampetri is the first former military officer to become vice-president since the country’s return to democracy in 1980. So far, García has publicly ignored the barrage of criticism his stand has attracted, even from people within his own party.

Another reason for pursuing the capital punishment policy is that it helps cement his ties to those supporters of Fujimori (including his brother and daughter) who won seats in Congress last year. These Fujimoristas, who like García and other leaders of the ruling APRA party are criticised for failure to uphold human rights when in office, have considerable leverage since the government needs their support to maintain a majority in Congress.