In Peru, Former Leader's Lengthy Human Rights Trial Nears End

Fujimori's case represents a rare high-level reckoning with the past.
Fujimori's case represents a rare high-level reckoning with the past. (Santiago Llanquin - AP)
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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

LIMA, Peru, March 23 -- It started with a former president red-faced and bellowing his innocence, and it is ending amid worry over whether his health may be enough to derail the whole show.

After more than 15 months and more than 70 witnesses, the often tedious, sometimes riveting and always live-televised judicial proceeding that is known here as the "mega-trial" has entered its final stages. Attorneys for former president Alberto Fujimori, accused of human rights violations involving state-sponsored killings and kidnappings, plan to present concluding arguments this week. Then comes Fujimori's closing statement. If Fujimori is convicted, his sentencing -- he could face up to 30 years in prison -- is expected by mid-April.

The trial, taking place in a special forces police base on the outskirts of this seaside capital, has been delayed in recent days because of concerns over Fujimori's health. His attorney said he suffers from hypertension while others describe it variously as a throat infection, diarrhea or simply a stalling tactic. If the proceedings are delayed for more than 12 days, a mistrial can result, prosecutor José Antonio Peláez said, and the proceedings could start over again.

But for the most part, lawyers involved in the case and observers say the process is notable for its fairness, thoroughness and transparency, especially for such a politically volatile case.

"This is a major step forward," said Jo-Marie Burt, a Latin American studies professor at George Mason University who has been an observer of Fujimori's trial. "Peru is a country in which impunity has been the norm. Powerful people have routinely gotten away with all sorts of things, ranging from massive corruption to grave violations of human rights."

Across Latin America, the political abuses of earlier generations -- the Argentine military's "dirty war" against its people or Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's state-sponsored killings -- still regularly reverberate in trials, public debates about memorials, books and documentaries. The prosecution describes this case as the first time that a former head of state has been extradited back to his own country for trial on charges of human rights violations. For Peru, the case not only represents a rare high-level reckoning with the past, but also is wrapped up in current politics.

Fujimori, 70, is still the figurehead of a strong political movement, with 13 seats in the 120-member Congress and support among parts of the population that see his decade-long rule ending in 2000 as a time when Peru defeated the Shining Path insurgency and set the country on a path of economic growth. His daughter, congresswoman Keiko Fujimori, 33, has presidential aspirations of her own and has vowed to set her father free if he is convicted. And some speculate a guilty verdict could set a precedent under which Peru's current president, Alan García, could face prosecution for alleged state abuses during his first administration in the 1980s, when he also fought the Shining Path.

The human rights case against Fujimori centers on four incidents. The first was the 1991 killings of 15 people, including an 8-year-old-boy, by soldiers from a special army intelligence unit who raided a barbecue in an inner-city neighborhood of the capital; it became known as the Barrios Altos massacre. The second was the 1992 killings of nine students and a teacher from Cantuta University, also by the Colina Group, a death squad operating out of the Army Intelligence Service. Fujimori is also accused of orchestrating the kidnappings of journalist Gustavo Gorriti and businessman Samuel Dyer in the wake of the 1992 episode, when Fujimori shut down Congress and the judiciary.

The trial opened with Fujimori defiantly rejecting the charges.

Although the prosecution does not have documents showing Fujimori specifically ordered these acts, it says it does not need them for a conviction. Ronald Gamarra, a lawyer representing victims of the Colina Group, described Fujimori as "the author behind the author."

"He created the Colina Group, which was used to kill. Fujimori gave the order," Gamarra said.

The prosecution is trying to build the case that Fujimori created the intelligence apparatus -- run by his close adviser Vladimiro Montesinos, who is in prison -- that fought its own dirty war against Peruvians while cracking down on the left-wing insurgency.

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