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updated 9/30/2010 4:28:40 PM ET 2010-09-30T20:28:40

The Shining Path spilled rivers of blood two decades ago as it tried to impose an agrarian-based communist state on Peru, its fighters known to cut off the fingers of voters to discourage participation in elections.

Now, Shining Path militants are for the first time running for office.

They've entered several mayoral and gubernatorial races Sunday under the banner of a movement seeking a blanket amnesty for hundreds of "political prisoners," including Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman.

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Led by two of Guzman's lawyers, it's run out of a small office in a Lima slum and is fielding candidates released from prison after serving sentences for terrorism and other crimes. Peruvian law allows former convicts to run for elected office.

While the Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights, or Movadef in Spanish, is tiny and its rallies modest, it is provoking alarm among Peruvians who are skeptical of its nonviolent claims and fear a return to political mayhem if it were to gain a foothold in even a few municipalities.

Peruvian historian Nelson Manrique says the movement adheres to Guzman's plans because following his 1992 capture he ordered his followers to "end the war and find a political solution that includes turning the Shining Path into a political organization."

The Movadef candidates say their goal is an amnesty that will finally heal a nation still scarred by a brutal war in the 1980s and 1990s that claimed nearly 70,000 lives.

"An amnesty will bring reconciliation to Peru," said Vasty Lescano, the movement's best-known candidate, in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "We don't want any more bloodshed."

A sociologist from a ranching family, Lescano spent 16 years in prison on a conviction of aiding terrorism. She seeks the governorship of Puno state, where a recent newspaper poll said she was running fourth among 21 candidates.

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Though it is not registered as a political party, Movadef was able to field at least seven candidates by allying itself with several small parties: six in Puno, a poor, wind-swept southern highlands state bordering Bolivia, and one in Lima's most heavily populated district.

Just how many ex-rebels will be on ballots nationwide Sunday is unclear. The National Elections Tribunal said it could not provide a figure. Candidates are not required to reveal criminal pasts.

Asked by reporters about the participation of former rebels in Sunday's elections, President Alan Garcia recently said that he was not worried.

"The country will always reject anything that comes directly or indirectly from terrorism," he said.

But a government decree last year ended sentence reductions based on good behavior for people convicted of terrorism-related crimes. Lescano said the decree was intended to smother attempts by activists like herself to organize Peru's poor against a small, rich minority that runs the country from Lima.

"The government is impeding the revolutionary activity of Maoists," she said. "It doesn't want us to run for office or to leave prison."

Lescano, dressed in a traditional highlands skirt with Inca motifs, said police have been following her constantly ever since her February 2005 release from Lima's high-security women's prison in Chorrillos.

For the entire 1990s, she said, rebels suffered "subhuman" conditions in prisons.

"I became convinced that only through Marxism-Leninism-Maoism can Peru advance," said Lescano, a slight, energetic woman with curly black hair.

She was imprisoned for hiding her husband, Edmundo Cox, a Shining Path leader convicted of terrorism for murders, sabotage and other crimes who is not due to be released until 2028. Lescano said she had rented a house for him and their two children.

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Movadef's proposed amnesty wouldn't just affect 556 Shining Path and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement prisoners. It would apply to anyone imprisoned for dirty war-related crimes, including former President Alberto Fujimori, who is serving 25 years on a murder conviction for allowing massacres.

Its prospects are dim if Peruvians' reaction to the May parole of New Yorker Lori Berenson is any guide. An opinion survey found three in four opposed that.

She had served 15 years of a 20-year sentence for aiding Tupac Amaru rebels, had a 15-month-old child and was deemed a model prisoner by the judge who paroled her.

But to many, Berenson symbolized the immense social cost of Peru's 1980-2000 dirty war and a three-judge panel returned her to prison in August.

The opposition to freeing Berenson would likely be minuscule compared to outcry over the release of Guzman, a 77-year-old former university professor serving life without parole for first-degree murder and terrorism.

Guzman promoted a ruthless "people's war" built on the teachings of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong and at one point his insurgency held sway over large swaths of Peru's interior while detonating powerful car bombs in its cities. His fighters would cut off the fingers of people who defied them by voting. Voters in Peru dip their index fingers in indelible ink as an anti-fraud measure.

Fujimori eventually defeated Shining Path with a fierce counterinsurgency campaign, though two small cocaine trade-financed remnants operate today in remote regions.

An independent Truth Commission determined that Shining Path — Sendero Luminoso in Spanish — was responsible for 54 percent of the war's nearly 70,000 deaths.

"It is very difficult for Peruvians to even recognize that the Senderistas have human rights," said Manrique, the historian.

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That may be less true in Puno, where Lescano ran on a clean government platform.

"I am going to vote for Lescano because she is the only one who isn't corrupt," 19-year-old Saul Mamani, a university student in Puno, told the AP by phone. "Here, nearly all the authorities take money from the people."

In the Puno province of Azangaro, Rojer Cruz is seeking its top job of mayor.

An avowed Maoist also running against corruption, Cruz spent 12 years at 12,500 feet (3,800 meters) in the frigid cold of Yanamayo prison on a terrorism conviction by a military tribunal that was later annulled.

Cruz, 40, has been running second in pre-election polls in Azangaro, whose 136,000 inhabitants are mostly poor Quechua-speaking farmers and ranchers.

He told the AP by phone that he doesn't believe the Shining Path committed excesses.

"The government has painted it to be nothing but bad," he said. "It was soldiers who created ghost villages."

Hoping to run candidates in next April's congressional elections, Movadef is trying to collect the 145,000 signatures needed to register it nationally.

Its leaders say they are sending out signature-gatherers every Sunday in Puno and Lima and also in the states of Huancayo, Apurimac and Ancash.

Movadef's No. 2 activist, Alfredo Crespo, said he could not estimate how many signatures have been collected.

In Lima, its candidate for mayor of the sprawling San Juan de Lurigancho district was ninth among 17 candidates in a late September poll by the IDICE firm.

An expert on Shining Path who teaches at the City University of New York, Jose Renique, says that, win or lose, the Movadef candidacies are "moving the barriers of perception" about the insurgency by running for office.

"If they get 3 or 6 percent there will still be people who call them terrorists, but it will also be clear that these new candidates have voters who see them otherwise," Renique said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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