Alberto Fujimori kept his head down, studiously taking notes, as a panel of three Peruvian judges found him guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 25 years in prison on Tuesday.
It took three hours to read out the verdict and sentence Peru’s former president for offences the court deemed “crimes against humanity.”
There was no doubt, the court found, that Mr Fujimori had authorized and sanctioned the Colina death squad responsible for the Cantuta and Barrios Altos massacres and the kidnappings of businessman Samuel Daly and journalist Gustavo Gorriti.
Mr Fujimori paused in his notetaking as the names of the victims were read out—25 dead, and four survivors, including an eight-year-old boy gunned down during a polleria (chicken barbeque) in Barrios Altos in 1991 and nine students and a professor at La Cantuta university in 1992.
Inside the high-security special forces compound where the 16-month trial had been held, the international press, families of the victims, Fujimoristas, legal observers, and riot police watched in a kind of awe as the sentence came down.
Here was the man who, together with his close adviser Vladimir Montesinos, had dominated public life in the perilous, chaotic 1990s. Fujimori’s only words, after briefly consulting with his lawyer, were to signal his intent to appeal.
Only days before Fujimori, in a vigorous two-hour oration, had finished the trial much as he began it 16 months ago, denying any direct link to the Colina group and proclaiming himself the savior of the Peruvian people. He had ruled “in hell” he said, and he had crushed the bloody Maoist Shining Path insurgency and introduced the economic reforms that paved the way for the tremendous growth of recent years.
This has been a powerful argument in Peru, where those who lived through the years of rampant inflation and the slaughter of innocents in the sierra, the jungle and later in Lima, do not lightly discount the value of peace.
Fujimori’s daughter Keiko, who has lead recent polls of possible contenders for the 2011 presidential campaign, has no doubt benefited from this sentiment. She says her support is strongest is among Peru’s poor, where Fujimori was one of the few presidents to visit and build infrastructure such as schools.
Yesterday she announced she would embark on a national crusade to clear her father’s name, focusing on the poor highlands where already there is a profusion of orange and white “Fujimori innocente, Keiko Fuerza” signs. “We want to go to the most remote villages, above all those that suffered the scourge of terrorism and let it be known how unjust this verdict is,” she told reporters.
The depth of Fujimori’s support is difficult to gauge, however, especially from Lima. I routinely ask everyone I meet for their view and I am often surprised by the answers—a Catholic nun who watched the verdict being read out was so delighted she felt her hair stand on end; a business leader declared him “the best president Peru ever had;” many people sit on the fence—he brought Abimael Guzmán to heel and rescued the economy, it was war … It is at this point that the question is raised: what is allowable in times of war?
Peru’s court drew the line at a state-sanctioned death squad operating with impunity; something that international observers have applauded. And recent polls by Lima’s Catholic University have shown that 64 percent of people believed Fujimori guilty of human rights abuses, and saw the trial as a chance for Peru to move forward.
I spoke with Gustavo Gorriti, the investigative journalist who was kidnapped as Mr. Fujimori and Montesinos staged their “self-coup,” and who has followed the careers of both men with a doggedness that has attracted many death threats over the years.
Gorritti, who went on to advise Alejandro Toledo’s administration in the period leading up to Mr Fujimori’s flight from the country in 2000, says Peruvians should have no illusions that a Keiko presidency would be Alberto Fujimori all over again.
A Keiko campaign for 2011 will be a test of the strength of her support, but it will also be a test of Peru’s still far from perfect institutions and Peruvians themselves.
*Naomi Mapstone is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. She is the Financial Times Andean correspondent and is based in Lima, Peru.