Friday, June 08, 2007

Exiled Peruvian president comes closer to standing trial

By Helen Hughes, Jack Chang and Tyler Bridges
McClatchy Newspapers

Posted on Thu, Jun. 07, 2007

SANTIAGO, Chile - A Chilean investigating attorney recommended Thursday that former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori be extradited to Peru to face human-rights and corruption charges stemming from his tumultuous 10-year rule.

The long-awaited report pushed the 68-year-old former leader closer to judgment in Peru on charges ranging from assassinating suspected guerrillas to illegally using public money to buy Chinese medicine and tractors during his 1990-2000 government.

Fujimori fled his country in 2000 during an official trip to Japan, and sent a letter home announcing his resignation. He left Japanese exile in November 2005 and made a dramatic, surprise landing in Chile. He was promptly arrested, and Peru sought his extradition.

The gravest charge accuses him of overseeing a government death squad known as the Grupo Colina that shot 15 people to death at a party in Lima, the Peruvian capital, in 1991 and kidnapped 10 others at a university in 1992 and killed them. The victims were suspected, wrongly, of belonging to the Shining Path guerrilla group, which had fought a bloody war against the Peruvian government throughout the 1980s.

Thursday's report by attorney Monica Maldonado endorsed all but two of the 12 crimes the Peruvian government cited in its extradition request, including aggravated homicide, causing grave injury and forcibly making people disappear as well as a range of corruption charges.

Maldonado said she found the record against Fujimori "overwhelming."

Supreme Court Judge Orlando Alvarez doesn't have to follow the recommendation when he decides Fujimori's fate, but such legal reports - which are mandatory in extradition cases - often determine how Chilean judges rule, said Marko Magdic, an attorney in Chile's Specialized Unit for International Cooperation and Extradition.

Top officials in Peruvian President Alan Garcia's government were guardedly optimistic that the report was a sign of things to come.

Fujimori has 20 days to respond to the report, and either he or the Peruvian government is expected to appeal to a five-member Chilean Supreme Court appellate panel. Even without an appeal, the high court will review the case, Magdic said.

"It's not a binding ruling, but it's an important reference," said Carlos Briceno, Peru's chief prosecutor.

Francisco Soberon, who heads a human rights group in Lima, said he was encouraged that Maldonado recommended Fujimori's extradition in the cases involving the death-squad killings.

"This is what we wanted," he said, adding that Fujimori could get a 30-year sentence if found guilty of having played a role in the killings.

In Lima, Fujimori's daughter, Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori, said she'd spoken to her father by phone, and she downplayed Maldonado's report. "My father feels fine," she said. "Let's wait for the judge's ruling."

Fujimori's attorney, Francisco Velozo, said he was pleased that only 10 charges were cited against his client. He said Peruvian authorities had listed as many as 40 in the past.

"We feel that, in part, our points of defense have been accepted," Velozo said.

Maldonado's report reignites a case that's been delayed many times since Fujimori astounded the world 19 months ago by flying surreptitiously from Japan to Chile aboard a private plane. Many think the legal case against him will drag on through this year.

Peruvian pollster Manuel Saavedra said that if Fujimori were extradited he'd suddenly dominate political discourse in Peru. That's why, he added, Garcia might not view Fujimori's return with much enthusiasm.

"The return of Fujimori would disturb the country's political calm," Saavedra said. "I'm not convinced that Garcia wants Fujimori to return."

While vast sectors of Peru denounce Fujimori - polls show that he has a 60 percent disapproval rating - he retains support for vanquishing the notoriously brutal Shining Path guerrillas, extinguishing hyperinflation and overseeing the country's economic rebound in the 1990s.

Polls conducted during last year's presidential elections in Peru showed that he would have won 20 to 25 percent of the vote if he'd been a candidate. His daughter won more votes than any other candidate for Congress, triple the support of the candidate who received the second highest number of votes.

Yet Fujimori also is widely despised for ruling autocratically, including closing the Congress and suppressing dissent. A Peruvian of Japanese ancestry, he resigned during the trip to Japan as investigations of his actions grew.

Many of his former colleagues, including intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, have been convicted on corruption and human-rights charges.

Ollanta Humala, a nationalist former army colonel who narrowly lost last year's presidential campaign, was among those who hailed Thursday's news.

"Many families have fought to see a day like this," he said in a statement.

One of those families includes Carmen Amaro, whose older brother, Armando, was a 25-year-old student leader who was one of the victims of the 1992 university killings.

"This first step makes us very happy," Amaro said in an interview. "It's not binding, but it sets a precedent. This fortifies our case. We've waited a long time for this. It shows that our efforts have not been in vain."

Hughes reported from Santiago. Chang reported from Rio de Janeiro and Bridges reported from Lima, Peru. Special correspondent Tomas Dinges contributed from Santiago, Chile.