Peru calls on citizens to report ‘acts of terrorism’ on social media

<span>Photograph: Pilar Olivares/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Pilar Olivares/Reuters

Peru has called on citizens to report social media users suspected of supporting or inciting “acts of terrorism”, as the country reels from two months of violent anti-government protests which have claimed at least 59 lives.

In a move widely condemned by human rights organisations, the country’s interior ministry said on Monday that the criminal definition of “apology for terrorism” was being modified to include the use of social media, after the first jail sentences for the alleged crime last month.

In a statement, Amnesty International said it rejected the measures that “threaten freedom of expression”. It warned that the creation of a virtual platform to report the crime could lead to wrongful convictions. A Peruvian court sentenced two men to eight years in prison in January for allegedly praising Abimael Guzmán, the late leader of the Shining Path terror group, on their Facebook accounts.

Carlos Rivera, a lawyer at Peru’s Legal Defence Institute, called the government’s move “extremely irresponsible”, adding there was a risk of “people being charged with terrorist offences that they have nothing to do with”.

Related: ‘We’ll fight until the end’: a journey through the centre of Peru’s uprising

The timing of the move has also raised concerns: Peru has been embroiled in political turmoil and street violence since early December when former president Pedro Castillo was accused of staging a coup after attempting to dissolve congress and rule by decree. He was arrested, and his vice-president and former running mate, Dina Boluarte, took office.

The move also comes as Boluarte’s government faces accusations of using excessive force against civilian protesters. At least 47 people have been killed by security forces, prompting the UN human rights office to demand an investigation into the deaths and injuries last month.

Some observers say Boluarte’s government has formed a tacit coalition with powerful far-right lawmakers who have portrayed the protesters as “terrorists” – a throwback to the internal conflict with the Shining Path in the 1980s and 90s, in which nearly 70,000 Peruvians died. Known as terruqueo in Peru, it is a common practice used to dehumanise protesters with legitimate grievances and even attack critical stances towards the government.

“These kinds of actions end up justifying the government’s discourse that terrorism is literally about to take power,” said Rivera. He added the government had become a “sounding board” for the campaign which, he said, was being pushed by the anti-terrorism police.

Related: ‘My city is destroying itself’: Juliaca under siege as death toll rises in Peru’s uprising

A video posted on social media shows police and soldiers singing anti-terrorist chants as they march down a rock-strewn road in the Andean region of Huancavelica. The protesters on the side of the road respond by singing: “We are not terrorists, we are campesinos.

Meanwhile, an activist who danced atop a Peruvian flag at an anti-government protest last month could face four years in prison for the alleged crime of defacing a patriotic symbol.

People walk past a police barricade on a street. Protests and roadblocks in Peru’s southern Andes have recently hardened.
People walk past a police barricade on a street. Protests and roadblocks in Peru’s southern Andes have recently hardened. Photograph: Pilar Olivares/Reuters

Peru’s political crisis is likely to intensify further as congress is expected to vote on Wednesday whether to readmit shelved proposals to bring forward elections – which, along with the Boluarte’s resignation, is one of the protesters’ principal demands.

If congress does not vote in favour, the proposal may not be debated until August, meaning protests and roadblocks are likely to intensify.

A recent survey shows that 59% of polled Peruvians identify with the protests, according to the Institute of Peruvian Studies. The demonstrators’ central demands also enjoy majority approval: 75% agree with the resignation of President Dina Boluarte, 74% with the closure of the widely discredited congress and 73% with general elections this year.

“Congress must accept that the country has had enough and urgently needs a certain date for elections and a change of leadership,” said Fernando Tuesta, a political science professor at Lima’s Pontifical Catholic University.

“It is a constitutional and political solution, with a powerful message that will allow the social explosion, the costs of which are unfortunately high, to be decompressed.”