Peru's Humala backs minister despite murder probe

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Associated Press

Posted on July 3, 2014 at 6:32 PM

Updated Thursday, Jul 3 at 6:36 PM

LIMA, Peru (AP) — President Ollanta Humala on Thursday backed his newly named interior minister after revelations the former army general has been formally accused in the 1988 murder of a journalist while a young intelligence officer.

"The lawyers indicate that what we have here is a strange case. We don't see that he's guilty," Humala, also a former army officer, told reporters at Peru's presidential palace. "We believe in the presumption of innocence."

Interior Minister Daniel Urresti earlier proclaimed his innocence and said he had no plans to resign after an online news outlet revealed Wednesday that the case was opened against him last year.

The victim was Hugo Bustios of Caretas magazine, who was ambushed by soldiers in the Ayacucho region while investigating extrajudicial killings of civilians during the conflict with Shining Path rebels.

"I am completely innocent. My hands are free of blood. I did nothing," Urresti, 57, said at a news conference late Wednesday.

On Thursday, during a meeting with journalists about his anti-crime campaign, Urresti evaded questions about whether as an army captain he was a member of the patrol that killed Bustios.

According to court papers obtained by The Associated Press, Urresti allegedly led the patrol that ambushed Bustios with gunfire and then dynamited his body.

Two soldiers were convicted six years ago in the killing. One of them alleged that Urresti was among the killers.

Last year, a judge in Ayacucho, Bladimiro Chuquimbalqui, approved a formal investigation of Urresti based on the testimony of two other soldiers.

Urresti acknowledged to reporters that he had been questioned by a prosecutor in Ayacucho.

Prosecutors in Ayacucho refused to discuss the case by phone with the AP.

At the time of Bustios' killing, Urresti was assigned to an army base in Castropampa in a region of nearly daily combat with the Maoist-inspired Shining Path, according to the court papers.

Urresti is a hard-charging former army general who recently led a government campaign against illegal gold mining in the Amazon that dynamited millions of dollars in equipment.

He told reporters that Humala knew about the charges when making his appointment to the post in charge of Peru's police.

Bustios' widow, Margarita Patino, held a news conference Wednesday with human rights activists in which she demanded Urresti's resignation.

"Not only did they machine-gun (Bustios), but they blew him up," she said. "When I went to collect him he was in pieces. No human deserves that."

Humala also fought the Shining Path during the 1980-2000 conflict, which claimed nearly 70,000 lives, mostly civilians.

A truth commission blamed most of the deaths on the rebels, but it also cited grave rights violations by members of the security forces.

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Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report.

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