Former Peruvian President Fujimori's conviction a milestone

He's the first democratically elected Latin American leader found guilty in his own country of human rights abuses. But supporters are expected to protest.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The conviction Tuesday of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori on human rights charges – including authorizing murder and kidnapping – has been hailed by some as a milestone for justice in Latin America.

Mr. Fujimori, who ruled Peru throughout the 1990s, is the first democratically elected leader in the region found guilty, in his own country, of human rights abuses.

But the conviction is also an important moment for national healing in Peru, says Efrain Gonzales, the vice rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima.

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While about one third of the country still supports the former leader, he says Peru can move forward from old tensions that surfaced during the 15-month trial. "It is an acceptance that we had a problem. He is guilty. There is a lot of evidence against him," says Mr. Gonzales. "The nation can move forward from here."

Some 70,000 people were killed during a 20-year conflict between the military and Maoist guerrillas in Peru. Fujimori, who was elected in 1990, was widely popular for free-market economic policies that saved Peru from near collapse and for defeating the Shining Path guerrilla fighters.

But amid corruption charges, his administration faltered and he fled to Japan, where his parents were born, in 2000. Five years later he attempted a return to Chile, apparently to begin a political comeback, but was extradited to Peru in 2007 to face human rights and corruption charges.

Crimes against humanity

A three-judge panel convicted Fujimori of "crimes against humanity," which include the death of 25 people by military death squads. One incident involves a military raid that killed 15 people in 1991. The next year, a group of students and a professor disappeared.

The former president was also convicted of ordering the kidnapping of a journalist and businessman. He had pleaded innocent. "The charges have been proved beyond all reasonable doubt," presiding judge Cesar San Martin said.

Hugo Relva, a legal adviser for Amnesty International who monitored the entire trial in Lima, says that several court cases involving human rights claims are pending, both among members of paramilitary forces in Peru and against other officials in countries across the region.

Amnesty laws in some countries, as well as a lack of political will and intimidation, have held some of those cases back, he says. "But this ruling is an historic step in the fight against impunity, not just in Peru but in Latin America," says Mr. Relva. "It sends a clear message that impunity will not be tolerated in the future."

The case is also important for the justice system in Peru, says Gonzales. Corruption undermined the system during Fujimori's term, but "This trial was impeccable and can begin to bring credibility and legitimacy back to the system," he notes.

Backlash from Fujimori supporters

Fujimori made no comment on the verdict Tuesday. But last week he told a packed court that, "No one has been able to present a single piece of evidence against me, due to the simple fact that they don't exist. As I said at the beginning, I'm innocent."

Many observers expect protests against the verdict in the coming months. Already there have been clashes between relatives of victims and Fujimori supporters, who represent a broad swath of the population.

Fujimori's daughter Keiko, a lawmaker, is a front-runner in the presidential races in 2011, according to opinion polls.

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