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Peru Awajun chief says investigations began with bias

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LIMA, Peru – One of the top Native leaders in Peru, co-chief of the 70,000-member Awajun Tribe which took the brunt of the damage in the deadly June clashes against police, said the investigations into the death of 33 people appears headed in the wrong direction, but Natives still hope for a fair result.

“Apu” or chief Cervando Puertas, in his first interview following a three-month exile in Nicaragua after he fled Peru to escape an arrest warrant linked to murder of police and insurrection accusations, said the government of President Alan Garcia is still trying to create fear among Natives.

“If one evaluates what the judiciary power has been doing so far, it clearly shows that the government manipulates this space which should be autonomous,” Puertas said in reference to accusations hastily approved by Peruvian authorities after clashes left 33 dead including 23 policemen.

He said many Natives believe there is a manipulation of judges because their maximum indigenous leader in Peru, Alberto Pizango, remains in exile more than three months after the confrontations which Natives claim occurred as Peruvian police decided to end a road blockade by shooting with AMK rifles. Pizango said he will return to Peru as soon as an arrest warrant is dropped.

Root of the problem

An increase in the number of oil and gas exploration concessions has led to the incursion into Native territories by private companies that detonate explosives for seismic studies or of companies that poison the rivers with discharges of oil contaminated waters.

The threat against Native territories reached a point of no return, according to Natives, in 2008 when Garcia used special powers he requested from Congress for a free-trade deal with the U.S. to pass other separate, unrelated legislation involving Native lands. The new laws were meant to strip Natives of their lands faster, Puertas said.

The laws he enacted were illegal because they violate agreements between Peru and the United Nations calling for the participation of Natives in any decision that impacts their lands, local experts have said.

A massive protest involving the occupation of oil and gas production assets in 2008 won a promise by Garcia’s government that nearly one dozen laws would be repealed. But in 2009, Peruvian tribes restarted nationwide protests to get the government to honor its promise. The clash occurred as police armed with AKM rifles tried to open a highway that had been blocked several weeks by the Awajun and left 33 dead.

Beheading AIDESEP

Puertas said besides attempting to take the leadership of AIDESEP away, there have been other actions against the organization.

“Lots of people from government have met and have pretended in recent months to manipulate, to take over AIDESEP, but they were not able to do it. The APCI (Peruvian government organization in charge of supervising NGOs) have been coming and going, but our institution is always up-to-date with all paperwork. They appear to come with the intention to bother.”

In addition, government authorities have prevented a bigger participation of Natives in a Truth Committee that was recently set up to investigate the killings and this may lead to unfair results, Puertas said.

He explained that “there is only one Native in the committee out of some six members.

“This committee is also being manipulated by the government of Garcia because if it were not like that, if it was a democratic matter, then there should be at least two or three Native representatives instead of just one.”

Puertas said Natives could do little to get more of their people into the committee because at the time of its creation three leaders, including himself and Pizango, had been forced into exile while two other key leaders were in hiding to escape arrest orders.

“Certainly we would have wanted more than just one representative because there were populations from six river basins that took part in the protests and those are located within two very large regions which make a very large area with a Native population of some 80,000.”

Hoping for an end

Puertas said Natives will only be satisfied with a fair end to the investigations and when the laws that affect Native territories are repealed.

“By withdrawing just two laws in June after the killings the problem was not solved. We want all 11 decrees repealed.” The laws give government officials a freer hand to extract resources without community’s approval.”

He said that by a Dec. 9 deadline Peruvian Natives will find out whether the committee acted with fairness regarding the investigation of the deadly clashes and about who unleashed the deadly violence.

“The government wants us to be afraid. But if the people are saying nothing it is because they are waiting for our process to be solved. Both the solution of the case of Alberto Pizango as well as the elimination of the laws.”