Peru: Rights Groups Applaud Fujimori Conviction

(IPS)-Human rights groups welcomed the conviction of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison Tuesday on charges of murder and kidnapping.

"After years of evading justice, Fujimori is finally being held to account for some of his crimes," said Maria McFarland, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch, (HRW) who was in the courtroom for the verdict’s announcement. "With this ruling, and its exemplary performance during the trial, the Peruvian court has shown the world that even former heads of state cannot expect to get away with serious crimes."

At the end of the 15-month trial, a panel of judges found the 70-year-old Fujimori, who was president from 1990-2000, guilty of ordering two major massacres: the execution of fourteen adults and an eight-year old boy in the Barrios Altos neighbourhood of Lima on Nov. 3, 1991; and the kidnapping, disappearance and murder of nine students and a professor from La Cantuta University on Jul. 18, 1992.

He was also found responsible for the kidnapping of journalist Gustavo Gorriti and businessman Samuel Dyer in 1992.

The murders were committed by an Army Intelligence Service (SIE) death squad known as the Colina group, believed to be supervised by Fujimori’s closest advisor, Vladimiro Montesinos.

"Justice has been done in Peru," said Amnesty International (AI) special adviser Javier Zuniga, who had been monitoring the trial in Lima. "This is an historic day. It’s not every day that we see a former head of state being convicted for human rights violations such as torture, kidnapping and enforced disappearances. We hope that it’s just the first of many trials in both Latin America and throughout the world."

Fujimori resigned by fax and fled to his parents’ native Japan in 2000 amidst allegations of bribery and corruption. In 2005 he secretly flew to Chile in hopes of running again for president. But he was immediately arrested, and was extradited to Peru in 2007.

The ruling confirmed independent findings from both the New York-based HRW and the London-based AI that Fujimori was responsible for the atrocities committed by the Colina group.

A 2005 HRW report, "Probable Cause: Evidence Implicating Fujimori", detailed the substantial evidence then available linking Fujimori to the Colina group and its activities.

The evidence included extensive official documentation and testimony showing that the Colina group was not a rogue operation, but existed as a formal structure within the army. Its members received resources and logistical support from the highest levels of the army and the National Intelligence Service (SIN), which were completely under Fujimori’s control.

AI, which has been closely following Fujimori’s trial through local and international observers, established that serious human rights violations and crimes against international law – such as torture, killings and enforced disappearance – which, given their widespread and systematic nature, constituted crimes against humanity, were committed under Fujimori.

In September 2008, Kate Doyle, a senior analyst at the Washington-based National Security Archive (NSA), gave expert testimony in the trial on the nature of the 21 U.S. documents that were submitted to the court as evidence by the prosecution team.

During her testimony she noted that the documents reflected the conclusions of the U.S. Embassy that Fujimori had engaged in a "covert strategy to aggressively fight against subversion through terror operations, disregarding human rights and legal norms."

The NSA, a public policy research centre, posted key declassified U.S. documents Tuesday that were submitted as evidence in the court proceedings.

The declassified records contain intelligence gathered by U.S. officials from Peruvian sources on the secret creation of "assassination teams" as part of Fujimori’s counterterrorism operations, the role of the Peruvian security forces in human rights atrocities and Fujimori’s participation in protecting the military from investigation.

One document from August 1990 details how "only weeks after Fujimori’s election," an intelligence officer working with the SIN reported to U.S. embassy officials on a covert plan, purportedly "the brainchild of presidential advisor Vladimiro Montesinos," to conduct extra-judicial assassinations of suspected terrorists.

"The training of these new ‘assassination teams’ is already underway," the source reported. He also stated that the plan had "the tacit approval of President Fujimori."

Fujimori is the first democratically elected Latin American leader to be tried in his own country for human rights abuses.

"This court’s ruling is important not only because of its content, but also because it demonstrates the crucial role an independent tribunal can play in addressing past abuses and shoring up the rule of law," said HRW’s McFarland.

AI found that prior to 1990, human rights violations were widespread in Peru, and used this occasion to call for further investigation and justice.

"Now it is vital that all those responsible for human rights violations committed in Peru, including those perpetrated prior to the government of Alberto Fujimori, be brought before the courts," said Zuniga. "Enforced disappearances, torture and rape are crimes that are not subject to statute of limitations if they are committed on a widespread basis, as happened in Peru."

Fujimori, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison, is already serving a six-year term after being found guilty in 2007 of ordering an illegal raid on the home of the estranged wife of his former spy chief, Montesinos.

The former president also faces future corruption charges for wiretapping opposition figures and giving 15 million dollars of government money to Montesinos, among other allegations.

Fujimori is not without supporters. He is credited with curbing inflation and crushing the Maoist Shining Path insurgency during Peru’s 1980-2000 "dirty war".

His followers account for 13 seats in the 120-member Peruvian Congress, and his daughter, Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori, is considered a leading candidate to succeed current President Alan García in 2011 elections. She said she would pardon her father if elected.

Defending himself, Fujimori told the court, "I governed from hell, not the palace." He blamed Montesinos for any counter-insurgency excesses and questioned why his predecessors were not also tried for human rights violations.

Fujimori is expected to appeal the conviction before the Supreme Court, but human rights groups are confident the verdict will stand.

"We would like to believe that the court will continue to show the same transparency and impartiality it has demonstrated during the trial phase," said HRW’s McFarland.