Alberto Fujimori, the maverick president of Peru whose forceful style of governing has made him one of Latin America's most influential and controversial political figures, is facing tough international criticism again for measures his detractors say strengthen his hand at the expense of democracy.
Fujimori's decision last week to withdraw Peru from the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court for Human Rights followed a series of actions inspired by Fujimori and aimed at a prominent media critic of the government and at improving his chances for seeking and winning an unprecedented third term as president.
In a two-hour interview with The Washington Post, Fujimori rigorously defended his recent mandates, insisting that he remains committed to democracy and "the future of Peru." Acknowledging that he is a "strong leader," he said critics abroad have misinterpreted his style as anti-democratic.
"It is said that I work as a dictator, that I don't consult anyone. This is not true," Fujimori said. "Before me, no president in Peru wanted to make tough decisions. They just wanted to leave it for someone else to take it later . . . I make the tough" decisions.
Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants, went from being an obscure university professor in 1990 to a crusading president who virtually wiped out two Marxist guerrilla insurgencies during his first two terms. He gained international attention for his gutsy handling of the 1997 rescue of hostages at the Japanese ambassador's residence, which had been seized by the guerrilla group Tupac Amaru.
Fujimori still enjoys some of the strongest approval ratings of his presidency. But he drew criticism from abroad for withdrawing from the human rights court, an arm of the Organization of American States that was formed in 1979 to provide plaintiffs in human rights cases a neutral alternative to their own countries' judicial systems, some of which are corrupt or government controlled.
In a statement, the Human Rights Commission said it "deeply deplored the unprecedented decision of the Peruvian state" to withdraw from the court's jurisdiction.
But Fujimori said he "had no choice" but to withdraw after the court decided in June that new trials should be held for four Chileans sentenced to life terms in prison in Peru. The four were among thousands of people tried and sentenced for terrorism by "faceless judges" in military courts during the 1990s. The courts -- in which defendants could not contest or examine evidence against them -- have been widely condemned by human rights groups.
Fujimori argued that upholding the human rights court's decision to retry the Chileans would have meant that thousands of "terrorism-related" prisoners in Peru might also be awarded new trials, and that would be a "threat to national security." He said Peru would continue to consider what the court had to say, especially on issues not related to terrorism.
Fujimori also dismissed claims that Peru's judicial system and Congress have become little more than government-controlled instruments to limit free speech and political opposition. Peru has been criticized by a U.S. congressional panel in the case of Israeli-born Baruch Ivcher, a former owner of Channel 2 in Lima, who was stripped of his citizenship and forced into exile by Peruvian courts after his station broadcast a series of stories on government corruption.
Fujimori insisted that "we have free speech in Peru," saying that he takes "any and all questions" from the Peruvian press corps "almost every day" -- although critics say Fujimori has a hand in deciding which reporters make it into the presidential reporting pool.
He conceded the judicial system has flaws, but insisted that his administration has made strides to root out corruption on the bench. Edgardo Mosqueira Medina, a cabinet minister, said that "foreigners are missing the point. You've got to look at the long term effect here . . . what good is freedom of the press if the people can't read a newspaper?" he said. "Fujimori took over when Peru was in chaos and he made order of this country, giving it security from terrorists and [an economic strategy]. Everything being done here is being done to help the people of Peru."
As for making a bid for a third term, Fujimori said he is undecided. Nevertheless, three judges were removed who found that his reelection bid would be unconstitutional, and last week a congressional measure passed that would block one rival, former President Alan Garcia, from running on the grounds that he faces corruption charges.
CAPTION: Peru's President Alberto Fujimori has taken steps to strengthen his control and curtail critics as he considers seeking a third term in office.