Today, the Peruvian Supreme Criminal Court convicted former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) of human rights abuses and sentenced him to 25 years in prison. An historic sentence, this ruling represents one of the few times that a wholly domestic court has tried a former president for international crimes. In particular, the Peruvian state convicted Fujimori for ordering the massacres at Barrios Altos (the extrajudicial execution of twelve people at a local party in 1991) and La Cantuta (the extrajudicial execution of eight students and a professor in 1992), as well as the kidnapping of journalist Gustavo Gorriti and businessman Samuel Dyer.
Relying on the criminal liability theory of “command responsibility,” the prosecutor provided evidence that the hierarchal chain of command led directly to Fujimori. Notably, the court found that the systematic and general policy of violent and repressive means of fighting a “war against terror” made these crimes rise to the level of “crimes against humanity.” Lawyers for the victims later pointed out to reporters that international law currently recognizes that perpetrators of this category of crime can never receive an amnesty or pardon.
As I watched the live coverage of the hearing online, I wondered what Fujimori was thinking. For the entire duration of the sentencing (which lasted all morning), he vigorously scribbled notes on his notepad and did not look up even once. Did he grasp the gravity of his acts? Or did he still believe they were justified as part of his campaign against terrorists? I suspect that when Fujimori stumbled on the Peruvian political scene almost two decades ago, he never could have imagined he would make history in this way.
As an unknown “outsider,” he had promised the electorate change, but went on to dismantle democratic institutions through a self-coup in April 1992 that closed the Peruvian Congress and Constitutional Court. He used draconian antiterrorist executive decrees as a dragnet to silence dissent, and was often aided by the paramilitary group Colina that carried out some of Peru’s worst massacres. Yet, it would be widespread corruption scandals in 2001 that would cause his government to fall and force Fujimori to flee to Japan, from where he faxed his resignation and settled into a comfortable life.
The Peruvian government began formal proceedings to solicit his extradition, a process that would take another five years. Fujimori was finally brought to justice after he made a surprise journey to Chile in November 2005 in anticipation of Peru’s national elections. Immediately, the Peruvian government submitted a new extradition request to Chile, which was granted by the Supreme Court of Chile on September 21, 2007. The next day, a tired looking Fujimori was delivered to Peru and immediately incarcerated in a holding cell specially-built for him in Lima. On December 10, the Permanent Criminal Chamber of the Peruvian Supreme Court initiated criminal proceedings against the fallen leader.
Having attended the Chilean hearing in August 2007, I felt an immediate impulse that it was imperative that the world stayed tuned into this historic trial. With the support of the Open Institute Society (the Soros Foundation), I began a trial monitoring project with my colleagues Ana Maria Vidal and Kelly Phenicie that included a bilingual blog (www.fujimoriontrial.org). We have received emails from people all over the world expressing their appreciation of having a direct source of news and analysis on the trial, but, even so, we question why the trial has not drawn the same type of international attention as other high-profile international criminal trials of former heads of states.
Today, Peru today showed its capacity for upholding the rule of law, but the current political context poses a constant threat to this commitment to legality. In fact, I carefully studied the solemn faces of Fujimori’s children who sat behind him, separated by a glass panel. His daughter Keiko is a Peruvian senator and now ranks as the number one candidate for the 2011 elections. She has already promised to pardon her father if elected. After the hearing, she told the reporters that the final judgement was filled with “hate and vengeance” and then took to the streets with a megaphone screaming to the protesting crowd that they would not stop until her father was freed. Earlier, police were called in to restrain the pro-Fujimoristas congregating and protesting outside the courtroom.
While those supporting Fujimori express anger, victims sigh in relief. Holding Fujimori accountable holds great symbolic purchase for the thousands of victims who suffered under his rule. I watched Gisela Ortiz stand outside the courtroom and publicly declare that justice had finally reigned supreme. The importance, she added, is to retain the memory of the deceased. Ortiz’s brother had been one of the eight students “disappeared” in the Cantuta University massacre, and since then she has crusaded for justice, becoming one of the leaders of Peru’s grassroots human rights movement. She even brought the Cantuta case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, resulting in a final judgment in 2006 ordering Peru to investigate Fujimori’s role in the massacre.
Even though Fujimori declared that he will appeal, the judgment offers a definitive condemnation of Fujimori’s regime to the national and international community. In particular, it stands for the principle that human rights violations cannot be considered just collateral damage in wars on terrorism, but rather are punishable criminal acts.