Criminalisation of social protest rebuffed in Cotabambas ruling

Criminalisation of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) has been gradually beginning to provoke the outcry it deserves. Over the last decade it has become one of the most serious blocks to the peaceful exercise of democracy in Peru. Protesters have been arrested in significant numbers and often, it appears, without proper evidence.

The UN rapporteur on HRDs in his visit in January placed an end to criminalisation of social protest high in his list of recommendations to the Peruvian government. As we recently recorded, his report refers to the stigmatisation of HRDs as “enemies of the state”.

The ruling last week by the Judge Andrés Abelino Aguilar in Cotabambas, Apurímac is therefore a highly significant event. After ten postponements of the trial, all the defendants facing charges (first brought in 2015) have been found to have no case to answer.

The original incident was a protest at the Las Bambas mine on 28 September 2015 over the modification of the EIA for the mine. Twenty-seven people were initially arrested, accused of a range of crimes: disturbing the peace, aggravated damage, and illegal possession of arms.

Some of the charges were subsequently dropped, and the numbers of those accused reduced to 19. But until their acquittal, two of the defendants still faced the possibility of lengthy jail sentences, the rest fines.

The judge found that the level of proof was inadequate and the linking of evidence to specific individuals was not clear. Among the 19 was Virginia Piñares, a small farmer and grass-roots activist from Cotabambas. The PSG was privileged to host her in the UK in November when she came to London on her first-ever trip outside Peru. She told us her story of abuse and the threat to life and livelihood that she had faced. She was accompanied by Julia Cuadros, founder member of the NGO Cooperacción. The two of them spoke at the PSG AGM, as those who were there will remember. They visited the Foreign Office and took part in meetings at CAFOD and at a public event with Latin Americans living in London.

Her story is eloquently told in an interview she gave to the New Internationalist entitled ‘If They Kill Me, They Kill Me’.

For now, at least, she and her colleagues can step forward with a little more confidence. But what is needed is serious revision of the norms in the legislation that allow for the criminalisation of protest and place people like her in jeopardy. Piñares comments in her interview that many women are afraid to protest because being arrested has such high costs for their families and livelihoods.