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Anti-terror laws ruled out in Peru

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LIMA, Peru — A Peruvian court struck down anti-terror laws Friday that had been used to quash rebel movements in the 1990s, a decision that could bring new trials for many people imprisoned on terror charges.

The Constitutional Tribunal's ruling followed an examination of four decrees approved by former President Alberto Fujimori.

The crackdown measures, including harsh prison sentences and the use of hooded military tribunals, were initially popular with many Peruvians who had grown tired of more than a decade of bloody, rebel insurgencies. But they drew international criticism for their secrecy and lack of due process.

Among other findings, the court declared the use of military tribunals to try civilians unconstitutional, which could open the way for civilian trials for some 900 people tried in military courts, including Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman.

"It doesn't order a new trial, but it opens the possibility," court president Javier Alva said, referring to Guzman.

But Alva said the ruling should not affect the case of imprisoned American Lori Berenson, who is serving a 20-year sentence in a Peru prison for terrorist collaboration.

A military court originally sentenced Berenson to life in 1996 for a failed plot to overthrow Peru's Congress. She was retried in civilian court in 2001 on the lesser collaboration charge. Peru's Supreme Court upheld the decision last year. Alva said she has exhausted her legal options in Peru.

On Thursday, Fujimori criticized the expected ruling. He has been living in Japan since he fled there amid a corruption scandal that toppled his decade-long regime in 2000.

"It seems the current government has forgotten that hell, has forgotten the 30,000 people killed by barbaric terrorism," he said in a videotaped statement released by press representatives in Lima.

By the early 1990s, guerrillas had virtually driven the Peruvian government to its knees with a campaign of car bombings, political assassinations and massacres of peasant communities that refused to support them.

Addressing a common concern among Peruvians that a wave of dangerous terrorist may soon hit the streets, Alva said the ruling will not set rebels free and does not disqualify evidence used in the secretive trials.

Instead, the court has directed Peru's Congress to create new laws that will allow life sentences to be reviewed upon petition, he said.

The court also said life sentences for rebels convicted of terrorism are an unconstitutionally excessive punishment.

Alva said Friday's decision brings Peru in line with rulings by Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the legal arm of the Organization of American States. The Inter-American court has directed Peru to reform its anti-terrorism legislation.

"I expect a great deal of debate and criticism, both international and domestic, to follow this ruling," Alva said.

Fujimori passed the authoritarian measures in 1992 to protect magistrates from rebel reprisals. Before the secret courts, death threats from rebels made some judges reluctant to deliver guilty verdicts.

Violence abated with Guzman's 1992 capture and the Shining Path — some 10,000 strong at its strongest — has dwindled to about 500 guerrillas today.

Nearly 30,000 people died in rebel violence between 1980 and the early 1990s, including guerrillas, members of the security forces and civilians.