Peru’s Supreme Court sentenced former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori to twenty-five years in prison last week for creating death squads during his presidency – from 1990 to 2000 – which murdered dozens of people. More than seventy thousand people died during Fujimori’s reign in the war between his iron-fisted administration and Maoist guerilla groups, the “Shining Path,” and the “Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.”
After a fifteen-month trial, the presiding judge, Cesar San Martin, said, “The charges have been proved beyond all reasonable doubt.” The court found that Fujimori targeted various political opponents for kidnapping and assassination. Fujimori was also found guilty of killing fifteen people, including an 8-year-old boy, at a suburban Lima barbecue.
Earlier Fujimori received a six-year prison term for ordering an illegal search. He still faces two corruption trials. He resigned from office while in Japan, which granted him political asylum because of his Japanese ancestry. In 2005 he left Japan for Chile, apparently to re-launch his Peruvian political career. He was detained there and extradited to Lima to face trial in 2007. Why did Fujimori abandon his Japanese safe haven? Was he deluded by a messianic belief that he could get away with anything, as he had for a decade as president?
The Lima judicial proceeding represents a major milestone, the first trial of a democratically elected head of state in his own country. It was also courageous, considering Peru’s violent past and Fujimori’s continuing popularity. His daughter is a member of the legislature and intends to run for the presidency in 2011. She has vowed to pardon her father if elected.
Equally courageous are the recent trials of Argentina’s former military leaders, who presided over the disappearances of up to thirty thousand Argentine citizens in the 1970s and 80s. In 2005 the government of President Nestor Kirchner removed legal protections that had shielded abusers of power from prosecution, allowing their cases to proceed.
Trials of former Argentine government officials accused of state-sponsored terror (kidnapping, torture and murder) have not simply stirred up painful memories. Trial witnesses have disappeared. Judges and prosecutors have been threatened with death unless the trials are stopped.
Apologists say the brutal tactics of the military regime were necessary to combat terrorist threats. That defense should chill the hearts of U.S. citizens, since that is precisely Dick Cheney’s rationale for the illegal kidnappings, torture and detentions without charge – our very own “dirty war” – that became U.S. policy in the Bush years.
Peru and Argentina understand that unless they identify and condemn the abuses of power committed by their own governments, their current and future regimes will lack legitimacy. “The past is not dead. It’s not even past,” as William Faulkner said. To pretend otherwise is to implicate current and future governments – of Peru, Argentina or the United States – in those crimes and abuses.
It took an outsider – a Spanish judge named Baltasar Garzon – to indict the notorious Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Enabled by Henry Kissinger and the CIA, Pinochet took power in a bloody coup on September 11, 1973, murdering the democratically elected President Salvador Allende. The Chilean justice system was too cowed and compromised by Pinochet’s bloody reign of torture and murder to act against him, even after he left office.
Garzon’s indictment caused Pinochet’s brief detention in England in 1998. He was finally indicted in his own country in 2000, but died of natural causes at 91 in 2006 before he went to trial. Accused of assassinations, kidnappings, tortures, murders and drug trafficking, Pinochet told investigating judges: “I don’t remember, but it’s not true. And if it were true, I don’t remember.” (His words are reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s testimony during his Iran-Contra deposition.)
Garzon lamented that “justice was too slow,” in Pinochet’s case. Now he has written a 98-page complaint accusing former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and five other ex-Bush officials (John Yoo, William Haynes, David Addington, Jay Bybee and Douglas Feith) of constructing a system that allowed torture in violation of international law. Garzon accepted jurisdiction because several Spanish citizens at Guantanamo allegedly suffered torture. Will justice be too slow in this case too? Will Americans be content to let Spanish courts do their legal dirty work?
Congressman John Conyers recently released a report entitled: “Reining in the Imperial Presidency,” detailing a long list of possible Bush executive branch violations of the Constitution, human rights and the public trust. The Conyers report says: “The Attorney General should appoint a Special Counsel… to determine whether there were criminal violations committed pursuant to Bush Administration policies that were undertaken under unreviewable war powers, including enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition, and warrantless domestic surveillance.” Conyers is very late with this, but better late than never.
As Mark Danner wrote recently in The New York Review of Books: “There is a sense in which our society is finally posing that ‘what should we do’ question. That it is doing so only now, after the fact is a tragedy for the country…”
How big a tragedy? Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, noted earlier this month, that “the U.S. leadership became aware… very early on…that many of the [Guantanamo] detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value and should be released.”
But Wilkerson says that – after the incompetence the administration displayed during 9/11 and the Iraq invasion – Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were adamant that no more mistakes be admitted. “Moreover,” writes Wilkerson, “the fact that among the detainees was a 13 year-old boy and a man over 90, did not seem to faze either man…” Wilkerson waited seven years to reveal these realities, a shameful injustice. But it would be a far greater injustice never to reveal them at all. Does anyone doubt that a serious investigation of human rights violations by Gonzalez, Woo, Feith, Bybee, Addington and Haynes will lead to Rumsfeld and Cheney?
As Danner says, “…even as the practice of torture by Americans has withered and died, its potency as a political issue has grown. The issue could not be more important, for it cuts to the basic question of who we are as Americans, and whether our laws and ideals truly guide us in our actions or serve, instead, as a kind of national decoration to be discarded in times of danger. The only way to confront the political power of the issue, and prevent the reappearance of the practice itself, is to take a hard look at the true ‘empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years,’ and speak out clearly and credibly, about what that story really tells.”
On her April 7 blog post, the estimable Digby spells out the stakes: “It’s not just about ending these practices. By refusing to investigate them, and even actively invoking claims like the “state secrets privilege” to shield and avoid any possibility of a reckoning, the Administration implicates itself. Because they must use the same extreme claims of executive power, in some cases more so, to facilitate the cover-up… In failing to wrestle with this, or letting Spain do it for us, we lose ourselves.”
Concepts such as “respect for human rights” and the “moral responsibility” of the United States have not been heard in Washington since the Carter years. Their re-emergence in our national discourse is long overdue. Nixon-era cynicism and abuse of power multiplied in the smiley-faced Reagan years, then exploded under Bush and Cheney.
We must redeem our national soul before it is too late. Peru and Argentina have shown that, with sufficient political will, despite great risks, it is possible to face the truth. Without facing the truth, and all its implications, we can have no self-respect as a nation, nor can we hope to regain respect and credibility within the world community.
We cannot count on our spineless, complicit Congress to drive this issue. They could and should have done so years ago. Demanding accountability is a job for us, we, the people. Not just in Peru. Here too.
JAMES McENTEER is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Political Documentaries (Praeger 2006). He lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia.