U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno should use her presence in Lima next week to insist that Peru fully restore independence of the judiciary, Human Rights Watch said today.

Reno's attendance at the justice ministers' meeting "will provide President Alberto Fujimori with undeserved prestige," warned José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, in a February 26 letter to Reno. The only way to avoid such an outcome, Vivanco said, would be to "take the opportunity to forcefully advocate the restoration of judicial independence" during the Lima trip. Justice ministers from the entire hemisphere are scheduled to meet in Lima from March 1-3.

The choice of Lima as the site for the justice summit was "unfortunate," Human Rights Watch said, because of the Fujimori government's record of exerting political control over the courts. "No government in the region--with the exception of Cuba--has more seriously interfered with the independence of the judiciary," Vivanco noted in the letter.

Nearly three quarters of Peru's judges and prosecutors serve on "provisional status," subject to political influence by the executive branch. The institutions created by Peru's 1993 Constitution to protect constitutional rights and judicial independence are effectively hamstrung. The Constitutional Court has been sidelined by the removal of judges who ruled against Fujimori's interests and the National Council of Magistrates has ceased to function after its members resigned to protest executive branch interference. So serious has the assault on Fujimori's government has not hesitated to interfere in individual court cases, producing serious human rights violations and miscarriages of justice.

To avoid appearing to endorse Peru's interference with the courts, Human Rights Watch called on Reno, "as the highest-level political representative of United States law enforcement," to make clear that Washington is not "a silent partner" in the suppression of judicial independence in Peru.