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Press Release

Jonathan Potts

For immediate release:
September 12, 2003

Carnegie Mellon Statistics Student Uncovers Evidence of More Peruvian Killings

PITTSBURGH—The number of people killed or "disappeared" during 20 years of civil war in Peru is more than twice as high as previously believed, according to a report co-authored by Jana Asher, a doctoral student in the Department of Statistics at Carnegie Mellon University.

In a report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Asher and her colleagues estimate that about 69,280 Peruvians died as a result of fighting between government forces and Maoist guerrillas between 1980 and 2000. Previously, Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission had received reports of 24,000 victims.

The researchers employed a statistical method called multiple systems estimation in which they used overlapping, incomplete lists of the dead to determine the number of people who were killed but whose names do not appear on any victims lists. Statistical methods are often necessary when conducting research on human rights abuses because a full-scale survey is costly and often politically unfeasible, Asher said.

"There are people who don't want to talk about atrocities they've experienced. If you're in an area where there's a hostile government nearby, you can't conduct a survey," Asher said. Based on the reports of witnesses, Asher and her co-authors estimate that 46 percent of the killings were committed by the infamous Shining Path, a Maoist rebel group; 30 percent of the deaths can be attributed to government security forces; and the rest likely were the work of other rebel organizations or armed peasant groups. The report's estimate has a 95 percent confidence interval, meaning the actual number of victims may lie between 61,007 and 77,552.

"It's very hard for people to move forward, for a country to move forward, without recognition of what has happened," Asher said. "Knowing how many people were killed, knowing the scope of the tragedy, helps people move on."

The Peru study was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which provided a $700,000 grant to support the data analysis activities of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program. The program has conducted quantitative analyses for large-scale human rights data projects in Africa, Asia, South America and Eastern Europe. Previously, Asher and one of her co-authors, Patrick Ball, director of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program, used multiple systems estimation to estimate the number of ethnic Albanian deaths in Kosovo in 1999. Ball presented their findings during Milosevic's trial for war crimes.

"I'd like to think that what I do with my day makes the world a better place," Asher said.

Asher, 32, earned a master's degree in statistics from Carnegie Mellon. The Department of Statistics is one of eight departments in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the second-largest academic unit at Carnegie Mellon. The college emphasizes interdisciplinary study in a technologically rich environment, with an open and forward-thinking stance toward the arts and sciences.


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