Peru’s Fujimori convicted in death squad trial, sentenced to 25 years

LIMA, Peru — A special tribunal today convicted former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori of murder and kidnapping for death squad activities during his autocratic 10-year rule.

The 70-year-old former leader, who remains popular for rescuing Peru from the brink of economic and political collapse in the early 1990s, was convicted of 25 murders committed by a military hit squad.

The tribunal then sentenced Fujimori to 25 years in prison for what it called his “crimes against humanity.”

Fujimori said he would appeal.

Presiding judge Cesar San Martin told a hushed courtroom there was no question Fujimori authorized the creation of the Colina unit, which the court said killed at least 50 people during 15 months as the state crushed the fanatical Shining Path insurgency.

Fujimori apparently anticipated a guilty verdict. He sat alone taking notes as the decision was read after a 15-month televised trial that produced a 711-page sentence.

His daughter Keiko was among those in the courtroom. The 33-year-old congresswoman is among front-runners for president in 2011, but she has not formally announced her candidacy. She says she would pardon her father if elected.

The son of Japanese immigrants, Fujimori faced a maximum of 30 years in prison.

Outside the Lima police base where the trial was being held, pro- and anti-Fujimori activists fought each other with sticks, fists and rocks after the verdict was announced, with chants of “Fujimori innocent!” and “Fujimori killer!” shouted by rival bands.

Some 30 relatives of victims clashed with about 500 Fujimori supporters. Riot police broke up the melee and no serious injuries were immediately reported.

Although none of the trial’s 80 witnesses directly accused Fujimori of ordering killings, kidnappings or disappearances, the court said he bore responsibility by allowing an illegal killing apparatus to be set up under his leadership.

The court ruled that Fujimori’s disgraced intelligence chief and close collaborator, Vladimiro Montesinos, was directly in charge of the Colina unit.

And it noted that Fujimori freed jailed Colina members with a blanket 1995 amnesty for soldiers while state security agencies engaged in a “very complete and extensive” cover-up of the group’s deeds.

Fujimori has already been sentenced to six years in prison for abuse of power and still faces two corruption trials, the first set to begin in May, on charges including bribing lawmakers and paying off a TV station.

Despite being the first democratically elected former president to be tried for rights violations in his own country, Fujimori remains remarkably popular and his successors have maintained his market-friendly policies.

Peru had Latin America’s strongest economic growth from 2002-2008, averaging 6.7 percent.

A November poll found two-thirds of Peruvians approved of his rule, though it ended in disgrace in 2000 when videotapes showed Montesinos, now serving a 20-year term for corruption and gunrunning, bribing lawmakers and businessmen.

Fujimori fled to Japan, then attempted a return five years later via Chile, which extradited him.

In its first bloody raid, the Colina group killed 15 people — including an 8-year-old — with silencer-equipped machine guns during a raid on a barbecue in July 1991 in the Barrios Altos district. Seven months later, in July 1992, the so-called Colina group “disappeared” nine students and a leftist professor at La Cantuta university.

In both cases, the intended targets were alleged sympathizers of the Shining Path, which was killing Peruvians with nearly daily car bombings at the time but was all but extinguished after its charismatic leader, Abimael Guzman, was captured in a Lima safe house in September 1992.

He is now serving a life sentence at a navy base, but some 500 Shining Path remnants remain active in Peru’s jungle, financed by the cocaine trade.

Fujimori was also convicted today of two 1992 kidnappings: the 10-day abduction of businessman Samuel Dyer and the one-day abduction of Gustavo Gorriti, a leading journalist who had criticized the president’s shuttering of the opposition-led Congress and courts.

In his final appeal Friday, Fujimori cast himself as a victim of political persecution, saying the charges against him reflect a double standard.

Why isn’t current President Alan Garcia also being prosecuted, he asked. It was from Garcia, who also preceded him in office, that Fujimori inherited a messy conflict that would claim 70,000 lives.

Garcia denies responsibility for any human rights abuses during his 1985-90 administration — and has the power to pardon Fujimori.

Human rights advocates called the verdict historic.

“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, who was in the courtroom.

“The Peruvian court has shown the world that even former heads of state cannot expect to get away with serious crimes,” she said in a statement issued by her organization.

In neighboring Chile, dictator Augusto Pinochet avoided trial for health reasons until his death at 91.

Peruvians generally agreed with today’s verdict.

A poll released Monday showed 64 percent believe he is guilty in the human rights case while 72 percent think he is guilty of corruption.

The survey of 462 Lima residents by Catholic University last month has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points, the same as the November poll on his popularity.

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