I/A Court H.R., Case of Cruz Sánchez et al. v. Peru. Preliminary Objections, Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of April 17, 2015. Series C No. 292.

Non official brief

 [This summary was developed by the Secretariat of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It relates only to the merits and reparations aspects of the judgment. A more detailed, official abstract (in Spanish only) is available on that Court’s website: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/.] 

 

Facts – Between 1980 and 2000 Peru experienced an armed conflict. Among the armed groups that participated in the conflict was the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).

 

On the night of 17 December 1996, 14 members of the MRTA entered the Japanese Ambassador’s residence in Lima where a reception was being held and took some 600 guests hostage. They later re- leased most of the hostages but 72 people remained in the residence. After several rounds of negotiations with the MRTA failed to resolve the crisis, the Peruvian President set in motion a rescue operation (“Chavín de Huántar”) on 22 April 1997 using about 80 assault commandos. The operation se- cured the release of the hostages. One hostage, two commandos and the 14 MRTA members lost their lives. Several hostages and officials were wounded.

 

The 14 MRTA members were reportedly killed during the confrontation with the military. However, a statement to the press in December 2000 and a letter subsequently sent to the Judiciary in 2001 by a former hostage prompted doubts about the circumstances in which three MRTA members– Eduardo Nicolás Cruz Sánchez, Herma Luz Meléndez Cueva and Victor Solomon Peceros Pedraza – had died and as to whether they were victims of extrajudicial executions.

 

In 2001 an investigation was opened following the filing of complaints. It led to the opening of criminal proceedings in the ordinary courts. However, following a jurisdictional ruling by the Supreme Court of Justice, the case against the commandos was transferred to a military court, which in 2003 decided to dismiss it. The ordinary courts continued to hear the case regarding the civil authorities, which was then accumulated to the proceedings regarding the alleged cover-up. When the case was submitted to the Inter-American Court, there had been no final decision in the proceedings before the ordinary courts. As a supervening fact, the Third Special Criminal Liquidation Chamber of the Superior Court of Lima issued a judgment on 15 October 2012 in which all the defendants were acquitted, except for one defendant who was found to have been in contempt of court. On 24 July 2013 the Transitory Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice ruled against nullification of the sentence. In 2007 criminal proceedings were instituted against the former Peruvian President and another person, and a new investigation was pending at the date of the Inter- American Court’s judgment into the events related to the death of Mr. Cruz Sánchez.

 

Law

 

(a)     Preliminary matters – The Court accepted a partial acknowledgment of international responsibility by Peru regarding the length of the proceedings before the criminal courts. It rejected the respondent State’s preliminary objections.

 

(b)     Article 4(1) (life) in relation to Article 1(1) (respect and ensure rights) of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) – The Inter-American Court reiterated that the assessment of the use of force should be done with regard to all the circumstances and context surrounding the facts of the case. In the instant case, there were three factors that needed to be taken into account in defining the criteria for the analysis of the State´s obligations: first, the existence of an armed conflict not of an international character; second, that the use of force against members of the MRTA had occurred within the framework of a hostage rescue operation; and third, that the alleged victims were MRTA members who had actively participated in hostilities.

 

The Inter-American Court deemed that it was useful and appropriate to take into account common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions and customary international humanitarian law, given its specificity in the field. It noted that international humanitarian law did not displace the applicability of Article 4 of the ACHR, but influenced the interpretation of the treaty clause which prohibited arbitrary deprivation of life on the grounds that the facts occurred in the context of an armed conflict and on the occasion of such conflict.

 

Given that the ACHR did not explicitly define the scope that the Court must assign to the concept of “arbitrariness” that qualifies a deprivation of life as contrary to the treaty in situations of armed conflict, it was appropriate to resort to the applicable corpus iuris of international humanitarian law in order to determine the scope of State obligations to respect and ensure the right to life in such situations.

 

The Inter-American Court recognised that the use of force by the State had been carried out within an operation by security forces with a precise objective: to secure the release of the hostages who had been held by MRTA members at the residence since 17 December 1996. therefore, it had been legitimate for the State to initiate the use of force in the circumstances of the case, as it met the need of freeing the hostages alive, provided that the relevant provisions of international humanitarian law and human rights were respected.

 

The alleged victims in this case were not civilians, but MRTA members, who had actively participated in hostilities. However, they could potentially be beneficiaries of the safeguards contained in common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions, as long as they had stopped participating in the hostilities and could be identified as hors de combat.

 

The relevant factual dispute, thus, centred on whether Mr. Cruz Sánchez, Ms. Meléndez Cueva and Mr Peceros Pedraza had stopped taking part in hostilities at the time they were killed and thus enjoyed the protection afforded by the applicable rules of international humanitarian law. To that end, the Court examined the relevant facts for each alleged victim and determined, in each particular circumstance, if the person was actively involved in the hostilities or not at the time of the events.

 

(i)      Death of Mr. Cruz Sánchez – From the evidence in the case file, the Court determined that Mr. Cruz Sánchez was found dead on a concrete platform outside the passageway of the residence with only one injury caused by a firearm projectile. Since the last time he was seen alive he was in a situation of hors de combat in the custody of the State, the Court found that the onus probandi should be reversed and it was for the State to provide a satisfactory and convincing explanation of what had happened. However, the State had failed to provide a plausible and satisfying alternative explanation regarding the way in which he had died in areas under the exclusive control of the State. The Peruvian judicial authorities had also determined that he “was killed after being arrested” once the residence premises had been dominated and the hostages had been evacuated. Hence, the Court concluded that it constituted an extrajudicial execution.

 

Conclusion: violation of Article 4(1) in conjunction with Article 1(1) (five votes to one).

 

(ii)    Deaths of Ms. Meléndez Cueva and Mr. Peceros Pedraza – Ms. Meléndez Cueva and Mr. Peceros Pedraza were found dead in a room on the second floor of the residence, with multiple projectile wounds. Commandos affirmed that they had been shot during the evacuation of the hostages. The Inter-American Court found no reason to depart from the conclusion of the national judicial authorities that their deaths occurred when they were still taking part in hostilities. Since the evacuation of hostages was ongoing, they could have represented, ultimately, a threat to the lives and safety of the hostages. Therefore, from the overall analysis of the evidence in the case file, the Court found that no sufficient elements had arisen to affirm that State action against Ms. Meléndez Cueva and Mr. Peceros Pedraza would amount to an arbitrary deprivation of life resulting from the use of lethal weapons in a manner contrary to the principles of international humanitarian law.

 

Conclusion: insufficient evidence to determine the international responsibility of the State for the violation of Article 4(1) in conjunction with Article 1(1) (five votes to one).

 

(c)      Articles 8(1) and 25(1) (judicial guarantees and protection) in relation to Articles 1(1) and 2 (domestic legal effects) of the ACHR – The fact that the deaths had occurred in the context of a non-international armed conflict did not relieve the State of its obligation to initiate an investigation, initially on the use of force that had lethal consequences. In this case, the hypothesis of alleged extrajudicial executions had come to light several years after the events, so it was not possible to impose upon the State an obligation to investigate from the beginning according to international standards developed in cases of extrajudicial executions. Furthermore, the Inter-American Court found that the period between the time the State was informed of the alleged extrajudicial executions and the date in which the investigation began was reasonable, so that there was no violation of the duty to initiate an investigation ex officio.

 

The Court concluded that there had been irregularities in the handling of the crime scene; that the removal of the bodies was not performed in a reliable, technical or professional manner; and that there was a lack of rigour in the autopsies conducted in 1997. Thus, the first steps of the investigation and initial collection of evidentiary material had lacked minimum diligence.

 

Furthermore, the proceedings before the Peruvian courts had not been carried out within a reasonable time and the State had not demonstrated that it had taken the necessary steps to locate the defendant in contempt. The Inter-American Court held that the intervention of the military jurisdiction had breached the parameters of exceptionality and the restrictions that characterise it. It recalled that allegations of extrajudicial executions are acts that relate to events and criminal offences which under no circumstances have a connection with military discipline or missions.

 

It further noted that after the decision by the Supreme Court of Justice in favour of the military jurisdiction, both the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Justice had established general and binding criteria in the sense that the military courts should not adjudicate crimes involving human rights violations.

 

The Inter-American Court held that a specific ruling on the violation of the right to know the truth was not necessary given the violations declared previously and the particularities of the case.

Conclusion: violation of Articles 8(1) and 25(1) of the ACHR, in conjunction with Article 1(1); no violation of Article 2 of the ACHR (five votes to one).

 

(d)     Article 5(1) (personal integrity) in relation to Article 1(1) of the ACHR – The Inter-American Court concluded that the State had violated the right to personal integrity to the detriment of Mr. Cruz Sánchez’s brother as regards the suffering in connection with the extrajudicial execution of his relative and the absence of an effective investigation.

 

Conclusion: violation (five votes to one).

 

(e)     Reparations – The Inter-American Court established that its judgment constituted per se a form of reparation and ordered that the State: (i) effectively conduct the investigation and/or the pending criminal proceedings to identify, prosecute and, if applicable, punish those responsible for the events related to the extrajudicial execution of Mr. Cruz Sánchez; (ii) provide free and immediate psychological or psychiatric treatment, as appropriate, to Mr. Cruz Sánchez’s brother if requested; (iii) publish the judgment and its official summary; (iv) pay the amount stipulated in the judgment as reimbursement of costs and expenses; and (v) reimburse the Victims’ Legal Assistance Fund.