Will Peru’s first conviction on racism open doors for eradication of racial discrimination?
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Will Peru’s first conviction on racism open doors for eradication of racial discrimination?

More than three years ago, a Peruvian-African woman named Azucena Asuncion was on the receiving end of a racial slur. Her colleague at SEDAM Huancayo, a water utility company in Junin, Peru, reportedly insulted her with “hurtful words and derogatory gestures in relation to her skin color.”

Judith Perez, who was not included in the trial, referred to Asuncion as a “black crocodile,” prompting her to report the insult to the general manager of the human resources department.

However, the two officials failed to impose sanctions against the offender. She then went on to file a criminal complaint against the general manager and the head of HR for failing to take proper administrative action. Asuncion was subsequently framed in various theft incidents within the company.

Unbeknownst to Asuncion then, her case would make history.

The court convicted SEDAM’s general manager Luis Perez and head of HR Augusto Santisteban  for failure to address the attack and penalized them with a fine of 5000 soles (around $1,500) for civil damages and three years in prison. They will also be unable to hold public office for two years.

This is the first time in Peru’s history that a sentence for the crime of racial discrimination has been passed down. According to Peru’s Ministry of Culture, past criminal convictions for discrimination were due to disability.

“It is so sad to remember the aggression these people treated me with, but the judgment is comforting,” Asuncion said.

She was given legal assistance after reporting the incident to the Alert Against Racism website, a government program that help investigate reports of discrimination. The Center for Development of Black Peruvian Women (CEDEMUNEP), a nongovernment organization, assisted Asuncion with legal counsel. The public ombudsman’s office also supported her complaint.

“With this sentence we have taken a very important step in the country because it is a precedent for the work in the rest of the cases that exist,” said Gabriela Perona, a consultant at Peru’s culture ministry and former director of the Alert Against Racism program.

Peru’s ministry of culture commended the federal court’s decision, calling it a “precedent of great importance for the exercise of the right to equality and non-discrimination on grounds of origin, race, language, or customs.”

But Asuncion’s fight is not yet over, as the person who committed the verbal attack, Judith Perez, has not been convicted.

Racism is still at large, but until when? 

Racial discrimination is under Article 323 of the Peruvian Criminal Code. Convicted offenders face imprisonment for a maximum of three years or 60 to 120 days of community service.

In an interview with El Comercio, Perona admitted that there are many administrative cases of discrimination, but no previous cases have resulted in criminal sentencing.

“Insults, slander, and harassment, will only result in a criminal case,” said Perona.

The government’s Alert Against Racism website shows that there are 82 reports currently filed. Perona clarified that Alert Against Racism is only responsible for determining if the validity if the case is really that of racism and signaling them to the proper institutions. Many complainants, upon review, end up changing the definition of the reported offense.

But will Asuncion’s case really pioneer convictions against racism?

La Paisana Jacinta (The Peasant Jacinta), a comedy show aired in Peru, has attracted the ire of many Peruvians since 2002 because of its highly offensive portrayal of the country’s indigenous people.

The show follows the adventure of Jacinta, played by comedian Jorge Benavides, an Andean woman who originally came from the Puno region in southeastern Peru. Jacinta moves to the capital city Lima to find a job, and in the process encounters  different people, parodying racial stereotypes.

Government officials and Peruvians  appealed to stop the airing of the show after the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) issued a warning that it endorses negative racial stereotypes. La Paisana Jacinta was canceled.

Protests arose again in March this year when it was announced that the controversial show is coming back. Indigenous leaders from more than twenty countries across Latin America and the Caribbean called on the government to take appropriate action.

“The exercise of freedom of expression can be censored if it violates the rights of others,” said Fabiana Del Popolo from the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

According to Perona, investigation on Paisana Jacinta’s case started in June.

Basic human rights

A study by the Center for Afro-Peruvian Studies and Promotion revealed that African-Peruvians are very vulnerable to racism, affecting their most basic human rights.

“Although they live mainly in urban areas, 70 percent of Afro-Peruvians surveyed who became ill in the past year did not seek medical attention due to the lack of access and perceived discrimination. Of that group, 27.7  percent suffered from chronic health problems,” said Germán Freire, a World Bank social development expert.

It has been 75 years since a racial variable was included in the national census. With the first national survey that targeted Afro-Peruvian families conducted by the Ombudsman’s Office in 2013, hopes are high that that a census of Afro-Peruvians will be included in the National Census in 2017.

Asuncion’s case is certainly a milestone in Peru’s battle against racial discrimination, but the country is yet to have a well-oiled body that will actively solve racism issues.

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