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A Measure of Justice in Latin America

“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.”

Maria McFarland, Human Rights Watch, April 8, 2009.

In a region of the world where state brutality has been the depressing norm, the conviction of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori on grave human rights charges seems something akin to a miracle.  Usually, cases of brutality have been papered over by the granting of amnesties, ostensibly to allow countries to reconcile contesting and bitter factions.  This decision challenges that approach, setting a chilling precedent to leaders who might argue that such an outcome is best reserved for dictators and despots.  Fujimori was, after all, democratically elected.

The Peruvian leader, elected in 1990, had promoted himself as strongman and protector of the state during that turbulent decade, overwhelming the insurgent challenge posed by the guerillas of the Maoist Shining Path.  But that came with its share of blood and carnage.   Faced with a mountain of corruption charges, he submitted his resignation, somewhat unusually, by fax, promptly fleeing to the country of his parent’s birth, Japan, in 2000. Feeling the wanderlust of a political return, he traveled to Chile, only to find himself facing an extradition order in 2007.

The three judges who tried Fujimori found him guilty of an assortment of “crimes against humanity” after a fifteen-month trial, imposing a 25-year prison sentence.  Amongst the charges were military operations that left 15 people dead on November 3, 1991, including the death of an eight-year old boy in the Barrios Altos neighbourhood in Lima; the kidnapping, disappearance and murder of a group of students along with a professor from La Cantuta University on July 18, 1992; and the murder of 25 others.  These had been perpetrated by a military death squad belonging to the Army Intelligence Service headed by Fujimori’s close advisor, Vladimiro Montesinos.

Fujimori has had little interest in the charges, or for the process that brought him there in the first place.  And little wonder.  Students of the region will remember his efforts to immunize the police and armed forces from charges of human rights violations with a blanket amnesty in 1995.  His amnesty laws were subsequently struck down by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which found them obnoxious to notions of justice.

From Fujimori’s perspective, evidence linking him to the events in question is lacking.  The links simply did not exist.  “As I said in the beginning,” he had told the court, “I’m innocent.”  The murders and kidnappings were simply the enterprising moves of free spirited anti-communist operatives connected with the security forces, known as the Grupo Colina or Colina Group.

This, it would seem, was far from the case.  Reports have circulated since 2005, most notably a Human Rights Watch document, Probable Cause: Evidence Implicating Fujimori, showing strong links between Fujimori and the brutalities of the Colina group.  Abundant testimony and documentation suggests that the group figured prominently in military operations.  The army and National Intelligence Service, both under Fujimori’s control, supplied them with plentiful resources and logistical support.  Even the US Embassy in Lima had to concede that the Fujimori regime had been engaged in a “covert strategy to aggressively fight against subversion through terror operations, disregarding human rights and legal norms.”

Whatever the international repercussions of the decision, its effectiveness will have to be gauged within Peruvian circles.  Hugo Relva, legal advisor for Amnesty International, lauded it as a blow to those who still believed in impunity.  Efrain Gonzales, vice rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima, suggested the healing propensities of the verdict.  In this sense, the argument is very conventional: punishment through regular tribunals in a manner just for both the person charged and the society he is said to have harmed.  In Gonzales’s words, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, “It’s an acceptance that we had a problem.  He is guilty… The nation can move forward from here.”

A considerable minority of Peruvians who continue supporting the convicted leader may not be convinced.  The matter has become something of a family affair, with Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, describing the verdict as one filled with “hate and vengeance.”  The precedent against impunity in Latin America has, however, been set, whatever the aspirations of the Fujimorists and their supporters.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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