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Peru is out of the emergency room, but the prognosis remains guarded

Our “stability” is very fragile, and although President Sagasti managed to obtain the necessary support to be elected, no one can guarantee that Congress—which a few days earlier removed Martin Vizcarra from office—will not remove him in response to any measure that is not to its liking.
Katya Salazar
Executive Director, Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF).
Demonstrators take part in a protest against the government, in Lima on November 21, 2020. Crédito: Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images

Last Tuesday, Francisco Sagasti, a well-known Peruvian intellectual, assumed the presidency of Peru. He will lead a transitional government until July 28, 2021, when the winner of the general elections of April 11 will take office.

Sagasti’s ascent to the presidency came after a week of major political turmoil in the country, which began when the Peruvian Congress declared the office of president Martín Vizcarra to have been "vacated" on the grounds of his “permanent moral incapacity” after just a few hours of debate and with Vizcarra facing serious impediments to an adequate defense.

Congress based its decision on allegations that Vizcarra was involved in corruption during his time as Governor of Moquegua, in southern Peru. In clear conflict with Article 117 of the Constitution, which expressly states that the president cannot be prosecuted during his term of office except in the cases specifically enumerated therein, the Peruvian Congress proceeded to remove Martin Vizcarra from office, eight months before the end of his term. The next day, the then president of Congress Manuel Merino de Lama—an inconspicuous businessman and politician—was sworn in as the new head of the executive branch, unleashing a wave of popular outrage that led to citizen protests in the capital and throughout the country.

For a week Peru experienced a kind of anxiety not seen since the nineties, thanks to a Congress that is disconnected from reality. While citizens—mainly young people—expressed their discontent through peaceful protests in different parts of Lima and other cities across the country, which were organized and shared through social media and other apps typically used by the younger generations, the images showed us a police force that was operating like it used to “in the old days.”

Indiscriminate repression, excessive force, and the use of banned weapons led to a tragic outcome. Two young men were killed, more than a hundred people were injured—several seriously—by buckshot and even glass marbles, and some people went missing for several days, apparently in police custody. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least thirty-five journalists were injured during the protests. Public pressure was so intense that Merino resigned at noon on Sunday, less than a week after being sworn in.

Sagasti’s appointment to the presidency is a breath of fresh air. Although we cannot expect big structural changes in just eight months of government, there are some priority issues that we should follow closely. First, cases of human rights violations committed during the citizen protests must be investigated, the perpetrators punished, and the victims provided with redress.

The Prosecutor General has just announced the opening of a preliminary investigation against former President Merino, former Prime Minister Flores-Araoz, and former Interior Minister Rodríguez for various crimes committed during the protests. This and any other investigation launched in response to last week’s events must move forward and provide results promptly. And to prevent similar events in the future, a protocol of action should be designed for National Police operations during social protests, to include the most recent developments in this area and lessons learned from comparative experience.

Second, the selection of members of the Constitutional Court should be suspended until the next Congress is seated in July 2021. The process that began in August has been seriously questioned due to its opacity and arbitrariness in the evaluation of requirements, among other reasons.

This Congress has shown that it is not the right one to select six of the seven members of Peru’s highest constitutional body, whose independence is essential to safeguarding the rule of law and democracy in the country. Moreover, a Congress most of whose members face open criminal investigations has strong incentives to co-opt the highest court in the land. Last week, several political parties called for the process to be conducted by the next Congress and withdrew from the selection committee. This decision should remain final.

Finally, the OAS, the United Nations, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights— an autonomous body of the OAS— are sending respective missions to assess the human rights situation in the country. These missions should be high-level and willing to play a role not only in monitoring but also in promoting dialogue between different stakeholders.

Our “stability” is very fragile, and although President Sagasti managed to obtain the necessary support to be elected, no one can guarantee that Congress—which a few days earlier removed Martin Vizcarra from office—will not remove him in response to any measure that is not to its liking.

This possibility has been underscored by the recent decision of the Peruvian Constitutional Court, which declined to resolve the substantive issue of what constitutes "permanent moral incapacity" as a reason for removal from office, potentially leaving the door open for Congress to again use this vague and subjective ground in future cases. The citizens of Peru and the international community must remain vigilant and actively support the process that began on Tuesday and should end, with its objectives met, on July 28, 2021.

(Katya Salazar, is a Peruvian attorney and former Adjunct Coordinator of the Special Investigations Unit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Peru.)