By Jean Luis Arce and Terry Wade
LIMA, May 5 (Reuters) - President Alan Garcia is jeopardizing Peru’s human rights gains in his drive to turn the economy into a regional powerhouse through free-market reforms, activists say.
Garcia recently issued a decree that will make it easier to use the military to arrest protesters. He also called a respected human rights activist a traitor for saying the government was using the threat of terrorism to clamp down on protests.
The actions have angered many in a country still haunted by a 1980-2000 civil war that killed nearly 70,000 people, when leftist insurgents and the government were accused of atrocities.
"What we are most worried about is how to respond to the government’s excessive use of force, which limits social movements and protests," said Francisco Soberon, a director of the prominent human rights organization Aprodeh, a target of Garcia’s criticism.
At least 13 people have died in protests suppressed by police since Garcia took office in 2006.
Garcia’s administration, which is trying to lure billions in foreign investment, frequently labels anybody seen getting in its way as terrorists — lumping together groups as diverse as environmentalists, union leaders and drug traffickers.
"The government is on a campaign to stigmatize (non-governmental organizations) — environmental groups opposed to mining companies and groups defending human rights," said Gino Costa, interior minister under former President Alejandro Toledo, who promoted reconciliation efforts after the civil war.
Garcia’s strategy of discrediting opponents plays on the public’s bitter memories of violent terror campaigns by the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas.
Analysts say the threat of terrorism has passed — the Shining Path was essentially wiped out in the 1990s — and the government must show restraint if Peru hopes to come to terms with its troubled history.
Critics say Garcia is trying to stifle dissent before two summits in Peru this year, one of European and Latin American leaders in May, and the other in November for Pacific Rim countries.
Garcia called Soberon a traitor for telling the European Parliament it should exclude the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement from its list of terror groups, saying the violent Peruvian group disbanded eight years ago.
Soberon denounced terrorism in his letter to the European Parliament, but warned that exaggerating it as a security risk would give Garcia an excuse to muzzle legitimate social movements.
Vice President Luis Giampietri accused Soberon of protecting terrorists and demanded an investigation to find out who finances Aprodeh, which spearheaded the extradition of former President Alberto Fujimori to Peru last year.
Fujimori is now on trial for ordering two massacres that killed 25 people in the 1990s, when the government was still fighting leftist insurgencies.
"Whose human rights do these organizations defend? They defend the terrorists," said Giampietri, referring to Aprodeh. Giampietri, a former navy officer, was both victimized by terrorists and fought them.
In 1996, the Tupac Amaru guerrillas kidnapped him at the Japanese Ambassador’s house in Lima. A decade earlier, during Garcia’s first term, he oversaw the suppression of a prison uprising that killed more than 100 guerrillas. Some organizations have have criticized Garcia for allowing the attack.
Marie Manrique, who has worked on justice issues in Peru for five years, said the government is clamping down on protests at a time when it is being pressured on several fronts.
"This is related to the presidential summits, issues leftover from the internal conflict, and current social problems related to the control of natural resources and food security," she said.