(IPS) – Peruvian President-elect Ollanta Humala will push the legal system to investigate and prosecute those responsible for a massive forced sterilisation campaign targeting poor indigenous women carried out by the government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), said the spokeswoman for Humala’s party, Aída García Naranjo.
“Humala will live up to the Peruvian state’s commitment to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to prevent impunity in the case of victims of female and male sterilisations, which we consider a crime against humanity,” García Naranjo told IPS.
“Democracy is not possible in a country where an absence of justice and a sense of collective amnesia are promoted,” said the representative of the Gana Perú party.
Under a friendly settlement agreement reached in 2003 with the IACHR, the Peruvian state acknowledged its responsibility, recognised the abuses committed under the family planning programme, and undertook to investigate and bring to trial the government officials who devised and implemented the campaign that carried out tubal ligations and vasectomies among mainly impoverished native rural highlands populations.
In 2010, however, the representative of the Peruvian government announced to the Washington-based IACHR that the attorney general’s office had shelved the case.
The only condition of the friendly settlement met by the Peruvian state was the indemnification of the family of María Mestanza, who died in 1998 as a result of a poorly performed surgical sterilisation procedure done without her consent.
But when the case was shelved, the possibility of obtaining justice for Mestanza and her family was effectively closed off.
According to Health Ministry statistics, 346,219 women and 24,535 men were sterilised between 1993 and 2000. A full 55 percent of the surgical procedures were carried out in 1996 and 1997 alone, a period during which the armed forces and police were allowed to take part in the operations.
That means an average of 262 tubal ligations a day were performed in that two year period, as part of the National Programme for Reproductive Health and Family Planning, carried out by coercion and deceit under the guise of an anti-poverty plan.
The programme was designed and implemented by the government of Fujimori, who is currently in prison for human rights crimes and corruption.
A 2001-2003 investigation by the Peruvian Congress documented cases in which women died as a result of operations that were poorly done or carried out in unhygienic conditions, and determined that the authorities had set quotas for the number of women to be sterilised, in exchange for benefits for the participating health personnel.
The pending question of the victims of forced sterilisation was one of the touchiest issues discussed in the televised debate between Humala and his right-wing rival, Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the former president, ahead of the Jun. 5 runoff.
The nationalist former military officer, who won a second-round victory campaigning on a leftist platform, urged Keiko Fujimori to take a public stance on the question of the sterilisations that affected so many poor native women during her father’s administration.
In the debate, Humala stressed that one of the members of his opponent’s campaign team was Alejandro Aguinaga who, as a health minister in 1999 and 2000, was one of the officials who implemented the controversial family planning programme.
But Humala forgot to mention another former official implicated in the case, Marino Costa – health minister from 1996 to 1999 – who also formed part of Keiko Fujimori’s team.
The third former official accused of leading the sterilisation campaign is Eduardo Yong Motta, who was health minister from 1994 to 1996.
Fujimori defended herself stating that the case was closed, and that Aguinaga had been investigated and had not been found responsible.
But despite Peru’s commitment under the IACHR agreement to bring those responsible to justice, no one has been brought to court.
“Humala’s announcement represents a hope for justice for all of those women who, like me, were deceived by the government of Fujimori which told us that sterilisation would lead to better quality of life, when in fact the exact opposite happened,” Ligia Ríos Lizárraga, a 44-year-old mother of three, told IPS.
“When they sterilised me they killed my last child,” said the rural woman. She added that “since they tied my tubes in 1997 by means of deception, without telling me that I was pregnant at the time, my life has been sheer hell.
“I have periodic haemorrhaging. I just now came out of the hospital, where I had to go for emergency treatment,” she said.
Ríos Lizárraga said she tried to bring legal action against those who performed the tubal ligation, but got nowhere.
“That’s why, after 14 years of suffering, hearing that my case and those of other women are going to be investigated gives me some relief. I hope I’m still alive when those responsible are punished,” she said.
Women from the southern highlands region of Cuzco were especially affected by the programme. At the peak of the sterilisations, in 1996 and 1997, the number of tubal ligations in that region climbed from 1,808 a year to 4,535 a year – in other words, from an average of nearly five operations a day to 12.5 operations a day.
Sabina Huilca, 41, from the village of Huayllaccocha in Cuzco, was one of the victims. She still to make regular visits to Lima for specialised treatment.
Huilca suffers from neoplasia – an abnormal growth of tissue – that doctors say may have been caused by the poorly performed tubal ligation procedure.
“I’m going to put myself at the disposition of the authorities to show the problems caused by the sterilisation done without my consent,” Huilca told IPS.
“I can document my injuries, my pains, everything that is necessary for the judges to understand that I have lifelong problems from an operation I never asked for,” she said.
In the final stretch of the election campaign, when the issue of forced sterilisation was dealing a heavy blow to her credibility as a candidate, Keiko Fujimori tried to extend an apology to the victims.
But Huilca said she didn’t accept the apology because it was “self-seeking.”
“I don’t believe her, because she never said anything before,” she added.
Jeannette Llaja, director of DEMUS, a women’s rights organisation that has taken part in local and international legal action in the case, expressed hopefulness regarding Humala’s announcement, but added that her group not only expects an investigation and for those responsible to be punished, but also individual as well as collective damages to the victims.
“Especially in the Andean regions, the sterilisations affected entire (indigenous) rural communities, which is why we take the stance that what was done was a crime against humanity, and thus subject to no statute of limitations,” Llaja explained to IPS.
“Investigations by Congress and others have concluded that the family planning programme was especially designed to affect the poorest women in the country, the inhabitants of the Quechua-speaking Andean areas,” she said.
She added that “not only the doctors were responsible, but the public policy-makers as well, which is the same as pointing to former president Fujimori himself.
“Humala’s declaration indicates that the Peruvian state will finally truly assume its commitment to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and we will keep close watch to help make sure that he lives up to his word,” Llaja said.