LIMA, Peru – Peruvians traumatized by years of guerrilla violence cheered in 1997 when government troops raided the Japanese ambassador's residence to rescue hostages held for 126 days by leftist rebels.
The dramatic rescue, begun with a blast in a clandestinely dug tunnel that shattered a rebel soccer match, captivated the nation. For most Peruvians, the story that would inspire a best-selling U.S. novel ended when the hostages were freed.
But 15 years later, and despite more than 180 hearings in three different trials before Peruvian courts, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is questioning the fate of the rebels, all 14 of whom were killed. Evidence suggests that three were summarily executed, including a 17-year-old girl, even after surrendering.
One of the 72 hostages and two commandos also died in the rescue operation.
"Every government has punted this issue to the next government," said Gloria Cano, a human rights lawyer representing relatives of the three slain rebels from the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, known by its Spanish initials the MRTA. The relatives are seeking monetary damages from the Peruvian state.
Chartered by the Organization of American States, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said the government hasn't "completed a thorough and effective investigation" of the three deaths or identified "the material and intellectual authors."
A public attorney assigned to the Defense Ministry claimed earlier this month that new evidence proved that at least one of the rebels, Eduardo Cruz, had not been executed. Forensic investigators who examined the bodies in 2001 call that claim baseless.
Peruvian authorities have until June 27 to file a preliminary brief with the San Jose, Costa Rica-based rights court, which is expected to rule next year.
Although Peru accepts the court's jurisdiction as a party to the convention that established it, President Ollanta Humala, a former army lieutenant colonel, has accused the commission of improper meddling, and has promised "to defend our commandos."
Officials fear the court could order a retrial for 11 commandos who were cleared by a military tribunal in 2004 of any wrongdoing.
The rescue remains a source of national pride and inspired the novel "Bel Canto" by U.S. author Ann Patchett and now an opera based on the book.
President Alberto Fujimori, who helped plan and ordered the raid, saw his popularity surge afterward.
Although a minor player compared to the Shining Path in the bloody Peruvian civil conflict that began in the 1980s and had all but ended by 1997, the Tupac Amaru group was also widely abhorred. The group didn't engage in random bombings of civilians like the Shining Path, but it did kidnap wealthy Peruvians, rob banks and launch targeted assassinations.
A public opinion poll in January found that 67 percent of Peruvians believe the Inter-American court should not be hearing the case, although 39 percent believe some rebels were executed after surrendering. The poll by the Ipsos-Apoyo firm of 1,200 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
The rebels had stormed the ambassador's residence during a pre-Christmas soiree, demanding freedom for hundreds of fellow rebels as well as Lori Berenson, an American now on parole after serving 15 years in prison for aiding the group.
The star witness in the Inter-American court's case is Hidetaka Ogura, then the Japanese Embassy's first secretary. After retiring from his country's diplomatic service in 2001, Ogura went public, saying he saw the 36-year-old Cruz and the other two rebels alive after commandos secured the residence.
Ogura did not respond to repeated attempts by The Associated Press to reach him through his university in Japan, where he is a Spanish professor. Cano said Ogura will not visit Peru because he fears for his safety.
"He was a fervent backer of the communists and showed it during the entire time he was in the embassy, with his closeness to the terrorists," said Luis Giampietri, a retired navy admiral and former vice president who was also a hostage and vehemently denies any extra-judicial killings.
He calls the mission "a clean and extraordinary operation considered the most successful in the history of hostage rescue operations."
A classified U.S. cable made public five years ago, however, says Fujimori had ordered that there be no rebel survivors.
"Because of this, even MRTA who were taken alive did not survive the rescue operation," said the June 11, 1997, Defense Intelligence Agency communication obtained by the independent Washington-based National Security Archive.
Fujimori fled to Japan in 2000 as his government crumbled in an unrelated corruption scandal. He was later arrested trying to return and is serving 25 years in prison on corruption and human rights convictions.
Under the Fujimori administration, Cano noted, forensic investigators were prevented from analyzing the crime scene. "There were no evidentiary photos, no adequate fingerprints, nothing," she said.
Clyde Snow, a renowned U.S. forensic pathologist who helped examine the bodies of all 14 rebels after their 2001 exhumation, said that in the case of Cruz, a single bullet entered through the back of his neck, "which I've always said is the hallmark of extra-judicial executioners throughout the world." Eight of the rebels were shot from behind.
"I consider these guys, they were terrorists, breaking the law," said Snow. "But those who were trying to surrender and were extra-judicially killed, now that was a line that was crossed ... they should have been given fair trials."
Peruvian courts have been trying four men for allegedly ordering the killings, but the cases have moved at a glacial pace, as the Inter-American commission noted. The defendants include Fujimori's intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, and the former army chief, Nicolas Hermoza. Both are serving 25-year prison terms for ordering killings of civilians.
Another defendant, then-army Col. Jesus Zamudio, is a fugitive but managed to renew his national ID card in 2008 and sign his pension rights over to his wife, suggesting that he remains in Peru. The fourth, former army Col. Roberto Huaman, was freed from jail last year because the case remained unresolved.
All the slain rebels, on the other hand, were buried in unmarked graves.
Relatives of 25-year-old Victor Peceros and 17-year-old Herma Melendez, the other two rebels whose deaths are the subject of the Inter-American court case, said they didn't learn of the deaths until four years later.
The relatives say they have been stigmatized and hurt financially ever since.
Peceros' mother, Nemecia Pedrasa, said three of her other sons and her husband were jailed for up to four months in 2002 simply for being related to "the terrorist Peceros."
Cruz's brother, Edgard, was fired from his job as an attorney that same year after discussing the case with reporters, said lawyer Cano, and wouldn't agree to talk to the AP.
Pedrasa said she and her husband, who grow coffee in the eastern jungle, spent all their meager savings to get him and their sons out of prison and travel back and forth to Lima seeking justice.
Now, they just want compensation, and peace.
If Peceros hadn't died, said his mother, looking older than her 58 years. "I would be able to visit him in prison, to see him, to caress him, because he was the first of my children."
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