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Fujimori returns to face trial in Peru

  International  -   POSTED: 2007/09/24 14:41

Human rights groups in Peru and abroad are heralding the weekend extradition of former President Alberto Fujimori as a groundbreaking move for Latin America and beyond. The Supreme Court in Chile, Peru's southern neighbor, agreed on Friday to accept the Peruvian government's request to send Mr. Fujimori home to stand trial on charges of corruption and human rights violations. The court approved seven of the 12 counts originally filed by Peru in January 2006. Fujimori arrived in Peru late Saturday afternoon and was taken to a police complex where he will be held temporarily until his arraignment. A special prison may be built for him, a justice official said.

"This is huge," says John Walsh, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights and democracy group. "It sets a precedent for the region."

This is the first time a former head of state has been extradited back to the country he once led to face justice.

Former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic was handed over to an international court. But previous similar cases have been the result of executive branch negotiations. This marks the first time a national court has handed a leader over to a domestic court of another nation, say human rights experts. "This is a victory against the impunity that we have been accustomed to in Latin America. It is a major step forward for Chile, Peru, and the region as a whole," says Gloria Cano, a human rights lawyer in Lima.

A Peruvian court will now try Fujimori on charges ranging from his alleged approval of a death squad killing of 25 people to giving his intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, a $15 million "retirement" package after he was fired.

Fujimori has been a controversial figure in Peru since his upset victory in the 1990 presidential election. He vanquished hyperinflation and a leftist insurgency at the start of his 10-year rule (1990-2000), but at the end was hounded by charges of corruption and human rights abuses.

His government began to unravel after the 2000 presidential election. A secretly taped video was leaked showing Mr. Montesinos bribing an opposition congressman. Swiss authorities announced that they had discovered bank accounts traceable to Montesinos. Peruvian prosecutors estimate that more than $1 billion was stolen during the Fujimori years.

Montesinos has been in prison since 2001 on an array of convictions, including a 20-year sentence for drug trafficking.

As pressure built, Fujimori used his participation in the 2000 Asia-Pacific summit in Brunei to bail on his presidency. He stopped off in Japan, his parents' homeland, and resigned via fax. He stayed for five years. Fujimori secretly left Japan in October 2005, flying to Chile with the idea of then entering Peru.

Investigators here say that Fujimori miscalculated the reaction in Chile, thinking that he would be afforded the same treatment as another former president, Argentina's Carlos Menem, who had sought refuge in Chile. Chile rejected an Argentine extradition request in 2004.

But Mr. Menem was married at the time to a Chilean, the charges against him were purely economic, and Argentina officials only wanted to question him. In the case of Fujimori, the major charge involved human rights, which is a delicate issue in Chile, given the brutal dictatorship of former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet, and it came with reams of supporting information.

Fujimori faces charges in the murder of 15 people in Barrios Altos, an inner-city Lima neighborhood, in 1991 and the killing of 10 people at the La Cantuta college the following year. Fujimori is accused of approving the actions of the paramilitary group, Colina Group, that did the killing. The inter-American court system has already found the Peruvian state culpable in both cases. Peruvian prosecutors would like Fujimori sentenced to 30 years for this case. The corruption charges carry sentences from two to eight years.

"I have waited many years for this day. We can finally imagine that there might be justice for our children," said Raida Condor, whose son, Armando Amaru, was killed in the university slayings.

Fujimori's extradition has immediate resonance in Bolivia, where the government is expected to request the extradition of former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who has lived in the US since being ousted in October 2003.

Rogelio Mayta, a human rights lawyer in Bolivia, says the Fujimori case "is a significant example for Latin America and will serve as a reference point for us."

Mr. Sánchez de Lozada is accused of unleashing the military on protesters calling for his resignation. More than 60 people were killed. Bolivian authorities have publicly called on the US government to return Sánchez de Lozada, but they are only now filing the legal paperwork.

The other active extradition case in Latin America involves former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega.

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