Peru is in peril. A misguided court ruling may well lead to a resurgence of terrorism in the region.
Late last week, three magistrates voted unanimously to absolve an accused Hezbollah operative in Peru of terrorism charges. The 35-year-old Lebanese national, Muhamad Ghaleb Hamdar, suspected of being a member of Hezbollah’s secretive External Security Organization, is now free.
With this ruling, Peru bungled its chance to become the first country in Latin America to successfully convict a Hezbollah operative for terrorism.
Hezbollah is infamous not only for carrying out terrorist attacks, such as the 1994 AMIA attack in Argentina, but for getting away with them. Rarely is a Hezbollah operative arrested in the planning and preparation of a potential terrorist action.
In Peru, they caught Hamdar at a time when several Hezbollah operatives were active in South America. For instance, in 2016 Bolivian police thwarted a terrorist act next door in La Paz, when they raided a Hezbollah-affiliated warehouse containing enough explosive materials to produce a two-and-a-half ton bomb.
There is no doubt that Hamdar is part of that same Hezbollah network. We know because he confessed as much in his initial deposition.
In October 2014, the Peruvian counterterrorism police (DIRCOTE) Hamdar was arrested Hamdar in Lima for allegedly casing targets, manipulating explosive chemical substances, and entering the country with a fraudulent identity and false documents.
Days later, he made an important confession. He admitted to being a member of Hezbollah and said the terrorist organization had given him the false documents to build his cover legend in Africa and Latin America. He also admitted that Hezbollah deployed operatives like him around the world to conduct intelligence missions.
So why was this not enough to convict Hamdar of terrorism-related charges? It’s because Peru’s legal system is lacking the knowledge necessary to prosecute this type of case.
In the first trial in 2016-2017, the Peruvian magistrates who initially absolved Hamdar of the terrorism charges had no idea what Hezbollah was. The court was inundated with Hezbollah propaganda in a misinformation campaign that left the magistrates confused about the fact that Hezbollah is officially recognized as a terrorist organization by more than 60 countries worldwide, including five countries in Latin America.
Thanks to the persistence of the Peruvian prosecution team, the country’s Supreme Court ordered the case to be retried. The retrial began in 2019, while Hamdar served a six-year sentence for identity fraud.
The retrial concluded on April 11, with another not-guilty verdict by a Peruvian superior court. This time, the court recognized Hezbollah as a terrorist group, but wasn’t sure that Hamdar works on their behalf. His earlier deposition was disqualified, based on the defense’s claim that he was “psychologically tortured” into a confession.
The “tortured” argument was first introduced as part of Hamdar’s defense in the 2017 trial. The initial claim was “physical torture,” but this was quickly rejected because medical examinations found no signs of “physical torture.” The defense then shifted to “psychological torture.”
The claim, however, does not add up to the facts of the case.
Careful examination of Hamdar’s deposition shows him joking with the translator and being jovial with the police officers. It shows no signs or effects of “psychological torture.” Rather, it shows a trained Hezbollah operative trying to trick the Peruvian police by admitting to only a fraction of what he was truly doing in the Andean nation.
And it worked. Hamdar served six years in a Peruvian prison for identity fraud but was absolved of all terrorism charges, twice. It seems he admitted just enough to get the Peruvian authorities’ attention, but not enough to secure a terrorism conviction—unless the prosecution is able to use all the evidence at its disposal to win its final appeal.
Thus far, Hamdar has played the Peruvian legal system quite effectively. The not-guilty verdict has sent a signal to all international terrorist groups that, even if they get caught in Peru, they won’t be convicted.
Peru was once a bastion against terrorism. It prevailed against Shining Path and other major terrorist groups operating in the countryside, Peru, today, is at risk of being overrun by terrorists—both home-grown and foreign. The acquittal of an accused Hezbollah terrorist weakens Peru’s counterterrorism legacy and jeopardizes the legitimacy of its judiciary.
This piece originally appeared in RealClear World