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The Legacy of Alberto Fujimori: Is Now a Chance for the Vindication of Human Rights?

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In 2000, Peruvian leader Alberto Fujimori sought exile in Japan following the exposure of corruption within his administration and the subsequent breakdown of lawful government. Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants to Peru, was quickly granted Japanese citizenship upon his arrival within the country; accordingly, the Japanese government refused to extradite the former leader so that he might stand trial before the Peruvian court. Fujimori then traveled to neighboring Chile in November 2005, purportedly to run in Peru’s 2006 presidential elections. He was quickly detained by Chilean police, and was extradited to Peru in September 2007 to face charges of corruption, graft, murder, and crimes against humanity.

Fujimori: A Political Timeline
Alberto Fujimori rose to the presidency in 1990, under the newly-formed Cambio 90 political party. He was virtually unknown within the realm of Peru’s political world prior to his presidential candidacy, and won the election against renowned author Mario Vargas Llosa largely as a result of his identification with the poor and disenchantment with the ruling APRA party. While Vargas Llosa sought to maintain the Peruvian political establishment and promote open market reforms, Fujimori blamed the continuance of guerrilla violence and hyperinflation on the inability of the dominant political parties to offer a lasting solution. Fujimori’s status as a political outsider aided him in securing his 1990 presidential victory.

Once in office, Fujimori’s first goal became the restoration of economic stability. Though his methods for ending hyperinflation contradicted his previous campaign proposals and entailed high social costs, in the long run economic restoration proved to be one of Fujimori’s greatest public achievements. The mid-1990s witnessed macroeconomic growth, largely as a result of Fujimori’s ability to successfully re-integrate Peru into the world market system.

In 1992, Fujimori initiated an autogolpe that shut down both the legislative and judicial branches of the Peruvian government. Fujimori had become increasingly agitated by his inability to pass economic and security-related legislation through Congress, largely as a result of resistance from the APRA and FREDEMO political parties. On April 5, Fujimori suspended the constitution, allowing him to govern by decree under the auspices of the armed forces. Though international organizations condemned the autogolpe as a violation of the Peruvian democratic system, the public supported Fujimori’s actions and largely agreed that the coup was necessary to achieve effective governmental action on mounting issues — notably, the economic crisis and the persistence of Sendero Luminoso’s violent guerrilla campaign.

After former President Alan García sought exile in Colombia, Fujimori created a Democratic Constitutional Congress and drafted a new constitution for the country. The new constitution allowed Fujimori to run for a second term, and he subsequently won the 1995 presidential elections with over 60 percent of the vote. He resolved certain outstanding border issues with both Chile and Ecuador, allowing for an influx in international development aid along the Peruvian border regions. Yet, between 1995 and 2000, the Peruvian public became increasingly aware of human rights violations occurring under the Fujimori presidency. Moreover, as he consolidated control over the press and educational system, Fujimori seemed to be increasingly prepared to abandon democratic processes in favor of authoritarian rule.

The 1993 constitution limited the presidency to two terms. Nevertheless, Fujimori and his Congressional supporters maintained that he could run for office again, since the constitution was not passed until after Fujimori was elected to office. Rumors surfaced of irregularities in the Peruvian voting system, and Alejandro Toledo, Fujimori’s opponent, encouraged Peruvians to cast spoiled ballots to protest fraud in the electoral process. As Peruvians gathered outside the presidential palace to clamor against the re-election of Fujimori, videotapes surfaced that revealed Congressman Alberto Kouri being bribed by intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos to win his support for Fujimori. Fujimori’s support then collapsed, and Congress ousted him from power in November 2000. Congress subsequently banned him from holding political office for ten years.

After the fall of Fujimori, Alejandro Toledo assumed the presidency and mounted a serious effort to pressure Japan into accepting Fujimori’s extradition. In August 2001, the Congress authorized charges against the country’s former leader based on corruption, murder, and kidnapping. Criminal accusations against Fujimori detail his alleged involvement in forming and administering Grupo Colina, a top-secret army squadron whose mission was to repress subversive activity, and his indirect participation in the massacres at Barrios Altos and La Cantuta.

El Chino as the Conqueror of Sendero Luminoso
The presidencies of Alan García and Fernando Belaunde Terry were debilitated by the rising violence of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a Maoist guerrilla movement that wreaked havoc on Peru’s political system for over a decade. Sendero Luminoso was an internal terrorist organization initially formed by philosophy and mathematics professor Abimael Guzman, and it sought to create a proletariat revolution by capturing the countryside and choking the cities through armed resistance, political chaos, and economic debilitation. Both Alan García and Fernando Belaunde Terry offered mixed responses to the rise of Sendero Luminoso, as they were reluctant to cede authority to military and police forces in combating the insurgency. After a state of emergency was declared in the provinces of Ayacucho, Huancavelica, and Apurimac, Belaunde Terry conceded power to the military to combat Sendero Luminoso – the Popular Guerrilla Army (EGP) subsequently massacred thousands of peasants, engaging in rape, the torture of innocents, and mass murder. At the same time, Sendero Luminoso continued to preach violence, conducting assassinations of community leaders, promoting attacks on the country’s infrastructure, and engaging in conflicts with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), another major guerrilla group seeking to promote its communist agenda in Peru.

Not until the presidency of Alberto Fujimori did the Peruvian government produce a viable response to the destruction perpetrated by both Sendero Luminoso and the armed forces. In 1991, Fujimori legalized rondas, locally organized self-defense committees that were armed and trained by the Peruvian military. Fujimori sent military personnel to Sendero Luminoso strongholds to maintain order and fend off guerrilla attacks, and declared a state of emergency in the region of Ayacucho. At the same time, the military persisted in its campaign of unremitting violence against campesinos suspected of involvement with Sendero Luminoso. Fujimori simultaneously initiated greater use of intelligence to fight the guerrillas, whereby the National Intelligence Service (SIN) engaged in widespread human rights abuses. Indeed, the massacres at Barrios Altos and La Cantuta, perpetrated by Grupo Colina, indicated the range of atrocities being committed against a broad number of government protesters as well as innocent bystanders.

Abimael Guzman was captured on September 12, 1992, and Sendero Luminoso crumbled shortly afterward. The movement had suffered substantial blows at the hands of the rondas, and subsquently split into factions that were unable to reconcile their differences regarding the future of the movement. Sendero Luminoso fell during the presidency of Alberto Fujimori, and as such, he has been able to sustain a great deal of legitimacy and popularity as a former leader worthy of being forgiven for his alleged transgressions. Fujimori allowed the military to detain suspected terrorists, as well as try them in secret courts, and initiated the Peruvian military’s training of the rondas. He emphasized that his strong-handed security measures were responsible for the decline in violence in 1992, and that his promotion of intelligence as a method of fighting Sendero Luminoso led to the eventual capture of Guzman.

The Trials of Fujimori
Fujimori faced his first trial at the hands of the Peruvian court system in December 2007. Upon his extradition from Chile in September 2007, he proclaimed that he “totally reject[s] the charges,” that he is “innocent,” and that he “do[es] not accept the accusations.” Nonetheless, Fujimori was found guilty of illegally entering the home of Vladimir Montesinos’ wife, in an apparent attempt to search for and seize incriminating evidence. At the conclusion of the trial, Fujimori was sentenced to six years in prison.

Fujimori’s second trial seeks to achieve a 30-year sentence for the former leader, who the prosecution accuses of serious complicity with the actions of Grupo Colina. Operating out of the Army Intelligence Service (SIN) Grupo Colina was formed during the Fujimori presidency, though Fujimori himself claims he had no idea that the group existed. All evidence that has been presented by the prosecution thus far has been circumstantial, and Fujimori’s critics have not been able to link him directly to acts perpetrated by the network. Nicolas Hermoza Rios, ex-head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stated that Fujimori knew of Grupo Colina’s activities; facing separate charges of corruption, kidnapping, and murder. Vladimiro Montesinos asserted that his actions reflected orders dictated to him by Fujimori. Nevertheless, as witnesses at Fujimori’s trial, Montesinos and Hermoza Rios denied Fujimori’s close involvement in the activities of Grupo Colina.

Colina is most notorious for its involvement in the massacres at Barrios Altos and La Cantuta. In November 1991, 15 people were killed by Grupo Colina in the Barrios Altos section of Lima. In 1992, they disappeared and murdered a group of nine students and a professor from Lima’s La Cantuta University. Some former members of Grupo Colina testified at Fujimori’s trial, insisting that they were only following Fujimori’s orders when they raided Barrios Altos. Following the murder of a young boy there, some of Colina’s members voiced their desire to leave the squad, only to be told that the only way to escape was through death. Yet, in order to convict Fujimori on charges that he condoned the actions of Grupo Colina, prosecutors will have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Fujimori took an active role in the creation and administration of Grupo Colina. They also will have to convince the court that Fujimori knew Grupo Colina was to become an annihilation squad.

Though the prosecution, public spectators, and human rights activists thought that Montesinos might implicate Fujimori in the bloodbaths of Barrios Altos and La Cantuta, he and Hermoza Rios have cleared Fujimori of any involvement in the activities of Grupo Colina. Montesinos is already serving 20 years in jail for a series of crimes, including corruption, smuggling, and bribery. Human rights lawyers now believe that former personnel might refrain from implicating Fujimori in order to receive reduced jail sentences at some point in the future.

In addition, Fujimori will face a rights violations trial for the disappearances of journalist Gustavo Gorriti and businessman Samuel Dyer, both of whom were kidnapped in the wake of Fujimori’s 1992 autogolpe. Fujimori is accused of ordering the unlawful detainment and torture of the two men, which occurred on Army Intelligence Service (SIN) grounds. Aside from corruption charges related to the bribery of six congressional leaders by Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori will also face trial for allegedly offering Montesinos an illegal $15 million retirement package following his government’s collapse in 2000. Fujimori is also accused of purchasing a public television company with his own, private funds, and must fend off charges that he illegally tapped the phone calls of his political opposition. Montesinos, for his part, has declared that Fujimori had to wiretap politically-motivated conversations for “reasons of state,” implying that such calls needed to be monitored as issues of national security.

Taking Note of Peru’s Political Atmosphere
Alberto’s daughter, Keiko Fujimori, plans to launch the Fuerza 2011 party to garner further political support for her father’s policies during the upcoming presidential elections. Fuerza 2011 would bring together Cambio 90, Nueva Mayoria, and Alianza por el Futuro under the banner of a new political party, seeking to consolidate the varying factions of Fujimorismo. In 2006, Keiko won the Peruvian congressional elections to become a representative for Lima; she received the most votes of any congressional candidate running that same year. She has denied that her political activism is an attempt to influence the outcome of her father’s trial; meanwhile, her brother Kenji has encouraged Peruvians to support Fuerza 2011 for the sake of “El Chino’s liberty.”

Thus, while Montesinos’ motive for clearing Fujimori of any involvement in the human rights abuses perpetrated by Grupo Colina remains unclear, observers have speculated that he may be hopeful that Keiko Fujimori’s Fuerza 2011 will win the next presidential elections. In such a case, Keiko may be willing to pardon Montesinos or reduce his jail sentence in return for the support he has shown her father. Keiko Fujimori already has asserted that she would pardon her father if she were elected to the presidency.

For his part, Alan García has not made the protection of human rights a top priority within his administration. Francisco Soberon, the director of the Peruvian human rights organization APRODEH, recently proposed to the European Union that it remove the MRTA from its list of international terrorist organizations, since the movement is largely defunct and no longer poses an internal threat. President Alan García labeled Soberon as a “traitor to the fatherland,” and Kenji Fujimori stated that “these people who have supported the rehabilitation of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, against the will of the Peruvians, and, as lawyers, are representing the families of the victims of the massacres, are provoking witnesses to testify against my father and it is clear that they are framing the case.” On April 27, Alan García cancelled the rights of 64 NGOs to attend the National Council of Human Rights, and the Peruvian president also has recently sponsored a controversial rally in support of Fujimori. Alan García has created an intelligence group, Comando Canela, with the aim of quelling social protest. Alan García’s political support for Fujimori could potentially aid the former leader in settling his numerous trials. Meanwhile, human rights lawyers and activists have been alarmed by Alan García’s growing predisposition to persecute political protesters and his lack of embarrassment over breaches of ethics that have occurred within his administration.

Alan García did not actively hail Fujimori’s extradition from Chile, as a positive trial outcome for Fujimori will advance Alan García’s own political interests. Alan García’s barely concealed support for the former president reflects his attempts to successfully pass legislation through congress, since the ruling APRA party frequently allies itself with the congressional pro-Fujimori bloc in order to retain political clout and raise specific policy issues. Furthermore, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, “a Fujimori conviction on human rights charges could have serious implications for Alan García, since during his first administration widespread human rights violations occurred and there is fear that someday he could be called to account for them.” Under Alan García, Peru has threatened to withdraw from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the state has provided free legal representation to those members of the security forces who have been accused of human rights abuses. In addition, Alan García’s administration has cracked down on human rights organizations and lawyers active under former president Alejandro Toledo. Toledo, with the help of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, vigorously supported Fujimori’s extradition to Peru.

While it remains unknown whether Fujimori will ultimately face punishment for his alleged participation in human rights abuses, the decision of the Peruvian courts will shape the futures of the Peruvian and international justice systems. Though Fujimori’s trials have not yet concluded, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights already have acknowledged the former leader as guilty – certainly, if Fujimori is not convicted on charges of involvement in the activities of Grupo Colina, his case could be seen as a major setback within the global community of human rights activists. Regardless of the court’s final judgment, leaders around the world who have committed atrocities will look to Fujimori in order to explore new strategies in dealing with political accusations of illegal acts.

Fujimori still retains considerable support within the Peruvian political system. Despite legal probes into the atrocities committed under his presidency, Fujimori is remembered by many Peruvians as the crusader against Sendero Luminoso and the rescuer of the national economy. Yet, if he is convicted, he will be the first elected president in living Latin American history to receive a prison term, since up to now only former military rulers have been sentenced by their own national courts.