Peru's backtracking on court - strongman politics?

President Fujimori's withdrawal from human rights court seen as reelection politics.

Peru's President Alberto Fujimori wasn't one to let a constitutional term limit get in the way of his 1995 reelection.

Now, he's flouting international law.

Last month, the Peruvian government withdrew from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights - in effect thumbing its nose at a hemispheric treaty and setting a dangerous precedent for the region, observers say.

The government claimed it withdrew from the court in July because of a ruling calling for a new, civil trial for four Chileans sentenced to life by a Peruvian military court in 1994 on terrorism charges. "Peru doesn't want to relive the issue of terrorism," says majority party Congressman Roberto Marcenaro. "If we obeyed the ruling, we would have to free the terrorists and then give them a public trial in which they would be converted into international celebrities."

But critics say the government's real motive in withdrawing was not issues of national security, but rather a case of plain and simple reelection politics.

While he hasn't declared his candidacy officially, it is widely assumed that Mr. Fujimori will run in 2000.

Fujimori would be the first president in the region to seek a third term. In 1992, he suspended Congress and called an assembly to rewrite the Constitution, which included, among other changes, the possibility of two consecutive terms of rule as president. Peru was one of the first countries in the region to adopt a such a provision since the turn of the century.

"By withdrawing from the court ... they wanted to avoid having to comply with two pending cases that would affect the president and his desire to run for a third term," says opposition leader and Congresswoman Anel Townsend.

One of these cases involves Israeli-born television station owner Baruch Ivcher, who was stripped of his Peruvian citizenship and subsequently of his shares in the TV station. These actions came on the heels of broadcasts his station aired alleging intelligence service wiretapping of opposition leaders and journalists. The station also aired an investigation that revealed intelligence services had tortured one of their own agents suspected of leaking information to the press.

Many expected that the upcoming ruling would have ordered the government to restore Mr. Ivcher's citizenship, making him eligible to regain the ownership of the station. International and local press freedom groups allege that the government exerts strong control over content of all broadcast television stations.

Opposition leaders also maintain that the government wanted to avoid the ruling on another case pending before the court, that of the 1997 firing of three judges on the Constitutional Tribunal, the equivalent of a supreme court. The judges were removed shortly after voting "inapplicable" a law passed by Congress, which interpreted the Constitution in such a way as to make Fujimori eligible to run for a third term in April 2000.

Critics chalk up the government's national security rationale for withdrawing from the court as nothing more than a carefully orchestrated misinformation campaign aimed to sway public opinion.

"The government has had a very clever strategy to paint the court as soft on terrorism," says Ms. Townsend. "This was accomplished through public declarations designed to convince the public that Peru had to withdraw from the court for reasons of national security."

Townsend and legal experts, including the nation's human rights ombudsman, say the Inter-American court did not order the liberation of the Chileans, and that the government would not have to do so unless, and until, the civil court found them innocent.

More important to the government than the four Chileans, critics say, is maintaining Fujimori's control of the press and the judiciary, control that has enabled him both to both silence damaging press revelations and to open the path for a run at a third term.

The withdrawal from the court is just the latest example, many say, of the leadership style that has given Fujimori the reputation of being a "constitutional dictator." Some analysts fear that Fujimori is on the forefront of what could be a regional tendency toward caudillismo, or strong man politics, a recurrent phenomenon in Latin American history.

"Now we no longer have coups d'etat because of international pressures aimed at insuring that they don't occur," says political analyst Fernando Rospigliosi. "Hugo Chavez, the current president of Venezuela, attempted a coup in 1992 and failed. But now, using different tactics, he is accomplishing the same goals - remaining in power and governing without institutional checks and balances." Mr. Rospigliosi adds that Mr. Chavez is doing exactly what Fujimori has done.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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