LIMA, Peru (AP) — Peruvian prosecutors say they have dropped a criminal investigation against former President Alberto Fujimori and health ministers who served under him over a 1990s mass sterilization program under which thousands of women say they were forcibly sterilized.
The probe had been re-opened in 2011 under pressure from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. But in a statement Friday, prosecutor Marco Guzman said he had shelved the inquiry against Fujimori and 26 former high-ranking officials after deciding that no crime against humanity had been committed.
Sigfredo Florian, a lawyer representing the victims, said they would appeal and referred to the forced sterilization case of Mamerita Mestanza.
"Only four low-ranking provincial doctors have been accused in the 1998 death of the peasant Mestanza," Florian said. "And not taken into account were the 140 volumes of evidence from the complaints of the other 2,074 peasant women" who say their tubal ligations were coerced.
Mestanza, a 33-year-old mother of seven, died in 1996 after being pressured into the surgery. Peru had agreed to pay more than $100,000 to Mestanza's survivors and guarantee her children free education through high school as well as free medical care. But the Inter-American commission, dissatisfied that the settlement was not honored, pressed for a criminal probe.
Fujimori, now imprisoned for corruption and authorizing death squads, claims the sterilizations from 1995 to 2000 of more than 300,000 mostly poor, illiterate indigenous women were voluntary.
The women say they were deceived, browbeaten, threatened with jail, bribed with food parcels and otherwise pressured into the operations to meet program quotas.
Activists say that besides being forced, the sterilizations were often carried out in unsanitary conditions. They documented 18 cases of women who, like Mestanza, died of infections shortly after surgery.
Mestanza had been told she needed to be sterilized because women who gave birth to more than seven children were being imprisoned, according to the settlement.
In the annals of government-sanctioned involuntary sterilizations, Peru's appear to be among the biggest in modern history, also affecting nearly 25,000 men.
Fujimori boasted that it dropped Peru's birth rate from 3.7 children per woman in 1990 to 2.7 children a decade later.
Officials of Fujimori's government claimed any excesses were the fault of overzealous local medical authorities. But the program was so controversial that the U.S. Congress cut aid payments to Peru that had been used to fund the program.
After Fujimori's government fell in a 2000 corruption scandal, lawmakers initially recommended genocide charges against the president. That probe was shelved in 2009 after prosecutors determined the statute of limitations had run out on the alleged crimes of serious bodily injury and manslaughter.
Reproductive rights activists claimed, however, that the sterilizations constituted a crime against humanity due to their scale and systematic nature.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report.