World / Crime & Legal

Peru gets new justice minister amid scandal over selling light sentences


Lawyer Vicente Zeballos took office Saturday as Peru’s new justice minister, facing the immediate challenge of dealing with a scandal over judges allegedly selling lighter sentences for a price.

The previous justice minister, Salvador Heresi, resigned the previous week after investigative website IDL-Reporteros in Peru published more than 20 tapes, on some of which Heresi and different judges appear to discuss arranging lenient treatment in exchange for cash or favors.

The scandal sparked street protests in several cities and prompted President Martin Vizcarra, in office only since March, to promise sweeping judicial reforms.

Prime Minister Cesar Villanueva told Radio RPP that Zeballos had the legal and political experience to lead the Justice Ministry and “help a lot with reform.”

Supreme Court president Duberli Rodriguez, as well as an appeals-court judge and three members of the National Council of Magistrates — which appoints judges and prosecutors — have resigned or been suspended as the scandal has reverberated through the Andean country of 32 million.

While Rodriguez has not himself been accused of wrongdoing, he resigned, saying he accepted responsibility as president of the nation’s judiciary.

In December, Zeballos, who is 55, resigned from the PPK political alliance to protest then-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s decision to pardon former President Alberto Fujimori on corruption charges.

One of the more shocking tapes seems to have the voice of Cesar Hinostroza, a Supreme Court justice, talking to an unidentified person about lowering the sentence of a person who had raped an 11-year-old girl.

Hinostroza has been suspended from office and ordered to remain in the country. He may face jail time.

The scandal began with the release of the 20 recordings, which were originally made by police as prosecutors tried to track a drug-trafficking ring operating in Callao, Peru’s main port, near Lima.

On Friday, Congress met in extraordinary session and unanimously approved the removal of all seven members of the magistrates council “for serious cause.”

The seven had resigned a day earlier.

A key figure in the scandal, Walter Rios, who has been dismissed as chief justice of the Superior Court of Callao, has been sentenced to 18 months in preventive detention — half the sentence prosecutors sought.