Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The demise of El Chino: Peruvian court jails Fujimori for 25 years

A special court in Lima has sentenced former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori to 25 years imprisonment for human rights. A three-judge panel found him guilty yesterday of ordering death squads to carry out two separate massacres of civilians during the early 1990s. Fujimori is the first ever democratically elected president to be found guilty in his own country of rights abuses. He was convicted of the killings of 25 people in two separate massacres, in 1991 and 1992, and also for the kidnappings of journalist Gustavo Gorriti and businessman Samuel Dyer in 1992. The massacres were carried out by the Grupo Colina unit, a squad of military intelligence officers under the then-president’s orders. He is already serving a six year sentence for abuse of power and the 70 year old could now spend the rest of his life in prison.

Alberto Fujimori ruled Peru for the decade between 1990 and 2000. Despite being the son of Japanese immigrants, the Peruvian media nicknamed him “El Chino” (the Chinaman). After a career as an academic specialising in engineering and mathematics, he was the surprise winner of the presidential election in 1990. He defeated the favourite, renowned novelist Mario Vargas Llosa by successfully portraying the writer as the candidate of the Peruvian elite. At the time Peru suffered from severe hyperinflation and political violence. Fujimori succeeded in fixing both problems but at a major cost of abandoning human rights. He temporarily assumed dictatorial powers in 1992 closing the opposition-controlled Congress and courts. Critically however, most Peruvians approved his actions.

Around this time, he also led the government through a bloody internal war with the Maoist rebel group, the Shining Path. In 1995 he won a second term of office defeating another high profile candidate former United Nations secretary-general Javier Perez de Cuellar. According to Time, Fujimori's success was based on an image of the populist caudillo “just as the continent was ridding itself of the legacy of dictators who had turned ‘disappear’ into a verb when dealing with their political opponents.” The war with the Shining Path led to the deaths of 70,000 people and Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has estimated that 37 per cent of those were killed by armed forces.

Nevertheless Fujimori remained popular and won a third term in 2000. This time there were strong suspicions of election irregularities. The new government did not last long and was overthrown in the wake of a corruption scandal involving the head of Peru’s intelligence service, Vladimiro Montesinos. In 2000, secret videos showed Montesinos bribing opposition congressman Alberto Kouri to join Fujimori’s party. Montesinos was forced to flee the country and his boss Fujimori followed him shortly after. The disgraced president fled to his ancestral home of Japan, where faxed in his resignation.

In 2005, Fujimori took a gamble on resurrecting his political career. He flew to Chile where he was promptly arrested. After a two year court battle, he was extradited back to Peru to face human rights and corruption charges. In December that year he was is sentenced to six years for ordering the illegal search of the apartment of Montesinos's wife in 2000. The separate human rights trial continued all through 2008. The prosecution successfully linked him with the Grupo Colina, a top-secret army death squad whose mission was to suppress any activity the regime thought subversive. Grupo members testified that they were following Fujimori’s orders in the two massacres.

Human Rights Watch called yesterday’s eventual conviction a “major advance for human rights accountability” in Latin America. HRW said Peru's national court system demonstrated “the will, capacity, and independence” to try its former president. Maria McFarland, senior Americas researcher at the New York-based rights body said the ruling showed that “even former heads of state cannot expect to get away with serious crimes.”

Fujimori’s daughter Keiko continues to maintain her father’s innocence saying she was “a direct witness to his work and his accomplishments”. She told Al Jazeera there was no proof of any dirty war and the government’s strategy was to get the support of the people whom they provided basic infrastructure to improve quality of life. “We created this group called ‘ronderos’ or ‘comites autodefence’”, she said. “We provided the poor people with small guns to protect themselves from terrorism.”

However, other Peruvians were less forgiving of the president and preferred to praise the justice system. Political activist Monica Miranda told the BBC that Fujimori had committed many crimes and violated human rights and she was proud that Peru tried him while he was still alive. She also said Fujimori violated the constitution, and committed crimes of corruption and embezzlement. “I understand he did positive things for many Peruvians who had been abandoned by all the previous governments, but that doesn't absolve him of his crimes now and it never will,” she said.

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