By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Jan 8 (Openly) - A 25-year legal battle by thousands of indigenous Peruvian women who say they were forcibly sterilized during a 1990s birth control drive will go before a judge on Monday, raising hopes they could finally see justice, their lawyers said.
About 350,000 women were sterilized under a program launched in 1996 by former strongman President Alberto Fujimori, who has said the procedures were carried out with patients' consent and aimed to tackle poverty by cutting birth rates.
But more than 2,000 women have told rights groups and prosecutors they were sterilized without their consent, sometimes threatened or duped by doctors who campaigners say received state incentives for performing the operation.
Lawyers representing the women - most of whom came from poor rural communities in the Andean highlands - said Monday's hearing could prove a turning point in the case after years of legal setbacks and delays.
"The hearing is the first step in the possible opening of an criminal investigation, which women have been waiting for for more than 25 years," said Marina Navarro, director of rights group Amnesty International in Peru.
Monday's online hearing marks "the most progress made in the case so far", she said, noting that it would be the first time evidence has been considered by a judge in public.
The judge will hear arguments by a prosecutor and lawyers representing the victims and those accused of wrongdoing, who include Fujimori and former health ministers. He will then decide whether to go ahead with a criminal probe.
Maria Ysabel Cedano, a lawyer who heads Lima-based women's rights group Demus, which is representing several sterilized women and their families, urged the judge to take victims' testimonies into account.
"We demand that the judge carry out a speedy and impartial investigation based on facts," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
State prosecutors first started probing allegations of forced sterilizations in 2003, but since then three separate investigations have been opened and subsequently shelved on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
"Women have felt that the state turned their back on them. They haven't had a chance to receive reparations and justice," said Amnesty's Navarro.
Fujimori, who has been behind bars since 2007 for corruption and human rights abuses, was cleared in 2014 of any wrongdoing linked to the sterilization program.
At the time, state prosecutors said they had found no crimes against humanity were committed and no evidence women were systematically coerced into being sterilized.
But lawyers representing the victims and rights groups disagree and say the family planning campaign is one of Peru's biggest human rights scandals.
"Evidence and testimonies of victims shows forced sterilizations were not isolated cases ... but part of a state public policy that was organized, and one that provided doctors with incentives to perform as many sterilizations as possible," Navarro said.
The birth control program targeted poor, mostly indigenous women, many of whom only spoke Quechua, campaigners say.
"They were seen by the state as women without a choice and say in what happened to them. They were seen as objects and were dehumanized," said Rossina Guerrero, programs director at Promsex, a local reproductive rights group.
"The state policy was based on discrimination and racism," she added.
Some women were harassed or coerced by health officials to undergo the procedure, rights groups say.
"There's testimony from women with more than five children saying they were told by government officials they would go to jail or be fined if they refused," Cedano said.
About 40 women died as a result of the tube-tying operations, according to rights organizations.
In 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights told Peru to investigate and punish those responsible for the death of Mamerita Mestanza, a 33-year-old woman who activists say was coerced into undergoing the operation that led to her death.
"The minimum the state should do is give women the opportunity of a fair trial and to seek justice," Guerrero said.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Helen Popper; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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