by Emilee Gaebler
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America
LIMA, Peru – In a decision dated October 21, Peru’s Attorney General re-opened the investigation into thousands of forced sterilizations that occurred during the presidency of Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori, who served as President of Peru from 1990 until 2000, utilized this sterilization program in an attempt to reduce poverty rates throughout the country.
Attorney General José Bardales was able to re-open the cases due to a recent announcement, by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that crimes against humanity had occurred in Peru’s sterilization program. The cases related to the program were closed back in 2009 on grounds that they were not a serious violation of human rights and under the statute of limitations. With this new classification as a crime against humanity, the program is now reachable as it cannot be proscribed.
About 2,000 women have provided testimony that they were forced to undergo sterilization surgeries, although it is estimated by human rights groups that overall, 300,000 women were forcibly sterilized. Additionally, evidence shows that at least 18 deaths occurred as a result of these surgeries. The women were mainly from rural areas and illiterate. Those who were indigenous Quechua speakers were also targeted by the program. Amnesty International states that the program clearly violated human rights law in denying women their reproductive rights but was also racially motivated because of the victims being predominately indigenous Andeans.
“Instead of providing women with other methods of family planning, like birth control pills, Fujimori promoted surgical and definitive methods. Health officials gave women no other options, no alternatives, they pressured and threatened them into having the operation,” said Francisco Soberon, head of Peru’s biggest human rights group APRODEH, in a phone interview with TrustLaw.
The case receiving the most attention is that of María Mestanza. Mestanza was a 33 year old woman with 7 children who died in 1996 from complications after undergoing a sterilization procedure. Her family originally brought the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights due to testimony that Mestanza only went through the surgery after being threatened by officials. “Mestanza was told that a law had been passed and that she and her husband were going to be fined or imprisoned because they had (more than) five kids already,” said Alejandra Cardenas of the Center for Reproductive Rights based in New York.
In 2001, the Peruvian government reached a settlement with Mestanza’s family that consisted of a $100,000 compensation payment as well as free education for her children. However, at the time of the settlement the regional human rights commission urged the Peruvian government to prosecute those responsible.
The issue of consent was hotly contested when the cases were first brought. Officials of the Fujimori government claimed that all surgeries were done voluntarily as evidenced by signed consent forms. However, investigators paint a different version of the story with the women being harassed, threatened and outright lied to in order to get the forms signed.
The sterilization policy to reduce poverty was started in 1995 and announced by then President Fujimori as a free program. The United States originally supported it with USAID donating $35 million. Shortly after the announcement, monthly quotas were enacted and enforced, driving doctors to forcibly sterilize many.
Another victim, Victoria Vigo was sterilized during a cesarean surgery in 1996. Her baby was born prematurely causing the doctors to operate during which time the surgeon severed her fallopian tubes. The baby died during surgery, and afterwards, Vigo accidently overheard a conversation between two doctors that she had been sterilized.
“He [the surgeon] had even omitted it from my clinical notes. He knew what he was doing. I could have gone on trying for years and years to have another child without even knowing that I had been sterilized. I felt mutilated, completely violated. What kind of values does a person like that have?” said Vigo to Global Post.
In 2003 Vigo sued the doctor and won $3500 in compensatory damages. At the trial the surgeon argued that he was simply following orders and that the program was official policy which he was bound to follow.
Fujimori himself is currently serving a 25 year sentence for other human rights abuses committed during his presidency. At the end of his leadership in 2000, rampant corruption was exposed and Fujimori fled to Japan from where he faxed his resignation as President. Japan granted him citizenship, forcing Peru to spend years trying to extradite him.
In September of 2007, Fujimori was brought to Peru and tried for his crimes involving a death squad. The 73 year-old was then diagnosed with cancer. His family is urging the current President Ollanta Humala to release him early on medical grounds.
Humala, who won elections this past June, narrowly beating Fujimori’s daughter Keiko, has yet to respond to the request. The sterilization program was arguably a huge reason why Fujimori’s daughter lost. Throughout her campaign she remained vague about the program, responding with apologies to victims but insisting the sterilizations were done by individual “bad doctors” acting independently.
For more information, please see;
Trust Law – Investigation Reopens Wounds of Peru’s Forcibly Sterilized Women – 9 November 2011
Global Post – Peru: Forced Sterilization Cases Reopened – 8 November 2011
Latin America Press – Forced Sterilization Cases Reopened – 3 November 2011
Amnesty International – Peru to Reopen Investigation Into Forced Sterilization of Women – 31 October 2011
Gulf Times – Pardon Sought for Fujimori – 31 October 2011
Antara News – Fujimori Family Wants Pardon for Peru Ex-Leader – 30 October 2011
Associated Press – Peru Reopens Probe of Forced Sterilization – 28 October 2011
Latin American and Caribbean Womens Health Network – Peru: Forced Sterilization Cases Reopened – 28 October 2011