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Ex-President's Trial a Moment of Truth

Sunday, December 09, 2007

By MONTE HAYES, Associated Press Writer

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LIMA, Peru — 

When former President Alberto Fujimori goes on trial Monday on charges of murder and kidnapping in his war against a brutal Maoist insurgency, it will be an uncomfortable moment of truth for many Peruvians.

The harsh tactics his government used to defeat the Shining Path guerrillas in the 1990s won Fujimori tremendous backing at the time. Now many Peruvians feel it's unfair to treat him as a criminal, while others are trying to reconcile their admiration for him with the long list of human rights abuses leveled against him.

"The trial is generating complex, ambivalent responses, and many people, moreover, are not saying aloud what they are thinking," Jorge Bruce, a prominent psychoanalyst and commentator, said in an interview.

"Many people feel guilty about supporting him because on the one hand the evidence of the corruption in Fujimori's government is overwhelming. But there exists this authoritarian tradition and people say, 'If everyone steals, why should Fujimori be any different? At least he freed us from terrorists.' That's the mood in much of the country."

The result: Seven years after he fled his country in disgrace, Fujimori is now more popular than the present president, according to an opinion poll.

Fujimori's 10-year autocratic regime collapsed in 2000 in a corruption scandal involving his closest aide, spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos. Fujimori fled into exile to Japan, his ancestral homeland, then moved to Chile expecting to be extradited to Peru, where he believed he could return to politics.

He indeed was extradited in September, but instead of a political rebirth he faces multiple trials on charges including human rights violations, abuse of authority and corruption.

Prominent in the case against him are the 1992 death-squad slayings of nine students and a professor at La Cantuta University, and the 1991 killings of 15 people in a tenement in Lima's Barrios Altos neighborhood. If convicted of authorizing the killings, Fujimori faces up to 30 years in prison and a fine of some $33 million. Fujimori, 69, denies any involvement.

He also is charged with ordering the kidnapping of a prominent journalist and a businessman, who were interrogated and released.

Human rights groups argue that Fujimori must be tried and sentenced for his abuses to send the message that authoritarian leaders will be held accountable for their actions when their countries become democratic.

To Miguel Jugo, co-director of Peru's main rights organization, the issue is simple: You can't fight an insurgency by murdering innocents. "Fujimori's strategy was to amputate," he said. There were other "medicines to heal the patient."

Peru has changed dramatically since Fujimori fled, faxing his resignation from Tokyo. The democracy that twice elected him has strengthened through two more freely elected presidents. The country has enjoyed six straight years of strong economic growth.

But many Peruvians are quick to point out that the growth is based on free-market reforms enacted by Fujimori, a political outsider, after he shut Congress in 1992, accusing it of blocking his anti-terrorism measures and his economic proposals. His bold move sent his popularity ratings shooting up to 80 percent.

"I'm 43 years old and during my lifetime, without question, the best government that Peru has had was Fujimori's government," said Victor Torres Delgado, a supervisor in a chocolate factory. "Fujimori saved the country from disaster, and if there were problems later with corruption they were small compared to what would have happened to Peru if Fujimori had not been president."

Newspapers, political parties and human rights groups _ all of which suffered years of intimidation under Fujimori's regime _ hailed his extradition, but political support for Fujimori has been growing since his return.

An independent poll by the Universidad de Lima in October showed Fujimori to be Peru's second most popular political leader, ahead of President Alan Garcia and topped only by Lima Mayor Luis Castaneda. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed approved his presidency, praising his war on terrorism and his aid to the poor. The survey of 556 people had a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.

Five years ago a similar poll gave his government only a 32 percent positive rating.

His political support is reflected in an important voting bloc in Congress, led by his daughter Keiko, 32, who was elected last year with 600,000 votes _ by far the most of any legislator. Her father has said she has "what it takes" to be president.

Peruvians have not forgotten the Shining Path, the car bombs, urban blackouts from sabotage and massacres of peasant communities by both sides in a 20-year war that left nearly 70,000 dead.

The civilian militias that Fujimori armed to fight the Shining Path in remote jungles feel abandoned by the presidents who succeeded him, and are outraged that he is on trial.

"It's not right if he had people killed in Barrios Altos like they say, but that is no reason to put him on trial. He did what he had to do. If some day he comes back to govern, we will be here to receive him," said Jose Luis Farfarn, 33, head of the militia in the hamlet of Triboline, in the isolated jungle-shrouded Apurimac valley.

As he spoke, Farfarn cradled a Winchester repeating shotgun, one of 12 his village received from Fujimori to defend against the Shining Path.

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