Peruvian Lawyer and Ex-Prisoner Wins Justice Prize

Monica Feria will receive the Gruber Justice Prize next week for her work as an attorney on behalf of hundreds of Peruvians who were killed and held illegally by their government. She was among them. Feria talks with Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the revolution that was not televised - how upheaval in America influenced Russia and France in the 18th century.

But first, Monica Feria is a Peruvian lawyer who lives in London. She received refugee status from the United Kingdom after she was illegally detained and imprisoned by President Alberto Fujimori in 1992. Since 1997, she has represented the victims of brutality at the Castro Castro Prison, where she was held and has won a decision in the Inter-American Court on Human Rights last November.

Because of her work, Ms. Feria will be one of three recipients of this year's Gruber Justice Prizes, which she'll receive next week in Washington, D.C. Monica Feria joins us now from the BBC Studios in London.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. MONICA FERIA (Human Rights Lawyer; 2007 Gruber Justice Prize recipient): Thank you very much for the kind invitation.

SIMON: And can you describe to us how it happened that you were imprisoned?

Ms. FERIA: In 1992, I worked as an assistant producer for a program that was to be broadcasted here in the United Kingdom. And the program was a documentary about Peru and the (unintelligible) armed conflict that at the time was taking place there. So obviously, this was seen by Fujimori as a problem. We had just finished with our work. I was detained and - you know, to produce a documentary of that sort was conceived as being threatening to the interest for Fujimori because gross human rights violations were taking place at the time and the regime didn't want the world to know about it.

SIMON: What were conditions like in the Castro Castro Prison?

Ms. FERIA: I arrived and I was quite shocked by the entire prison conditions -lack of water, you know, it was just - you could only have, you know, almost half a glass to wash yourself in the morning. No electricity most of the day. Overcrowded in a building were 90 people should sleep, there were about 400 and something in one cellblock.

The cellblock where I was taken to was a women's cellblock, which were quite unusual because this was a prison for men, basically. It was a high-security prison for the most dangerous prisoners in Peru. And I was taken - you know, it was the first time I was detained. I was a middle-class girl and I was taken to this prison and straightaway put in the cellblock where people accused of belonging to Shining Path were housed. And it was a total shock for me.

SIMON: Shining Path is Sendero Luminoso, the famous guerilla group.

Ms. FERIA: Correct. Yes. Yes.

SIMON: I'm sorry to get so specific but were there beatings? Were there instances of brutality?

Ms. FERIA: Well, the state launched a massacre. I think that was my first experience in prison as a detainee. And it was extremely violent. Prisoners were shot. The state was using elite police forces and army. And they were all shooting to kill. And they started using helicopters to throw rockets. And the building was being destroyed little by little. There were quite a few women that were pregnant. I managed to survive that first day because I crawled on my elbows to try to go to the sewerage system so that the building that was collapsing could have fallen on me. From that moment, the survivors were taken to different prisons.

And as I left the massacre, I was in clothes full of blood. And that's exactly how I had to live for the next five months. I was not allowed to change clothes. Or I was not allowed to see my relatives. I was not allowed to see a lawyer. I was basically taken to Santa Monica Prison to put in a cell that was two-for-two meter square.

And they used brutal force constantly. I think the incommunicado, the prolonged incommunicado measures were extremely detrimental. Many women lost their sanity.

SIMON: How many - I don't know whether they refer to them as inmates or victims. I expect both - of the Castro Castro prison are you representing at the moment?

Ms. FERIA: About 300 victims and also relatives of victims that died and relatives of the victims that survived because they have also been acknowledged to be victims in their own right. Like the children, for example, of some of the inmates who were affected by not being able to have contact with their parents. I mean, families were shattered and this affected entire families. It certainly affected my own family, not just me.

SIMON: How important was this, the finding of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights?

Ms. FERIA: It's one of the most important cases ever on (Unintelligible). The state have the responsibility to prosecute all the actors that had ordered, planned and carried out these acts, including President Alberto Fujimori.

SIMON: And of course, President Fujimori has been sent back to Peru. Have you thought about what it would be like to see him in the courtroom, to talk to him?

Ms. FERIA: No. I haven't thought about it. I think it's been quite an important present just, you know, to see that extradition went through. And I'm still digesting those news that is important not just for Peru but for the world.

SIMON: Monica Feria will receive that 2007 Gruber Justice Prize in Washington, D.C. next week. She's speaking with us from London.

Thank you very much for being with us.

Ms. FERIA: Thank you very much.

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