Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's talent for doing the unexpected came through in the initial days of the first of his trials for murder, graft and abuse of power. Hours into the presentation of witnesses and evidence, Fujimori was given the chance to speak, asked by the judge to enter his plea of guilt or innocence. After serenely requesting a bit of extra time, Fujimori launched into an outraged howl, screaming at the surprised courtroom that he had saved Peru and rejected out of hand the charges. "I totally reject the charges. I am innocent. I do not accept this accusation," he bellowed, before taking his seat.
This particular trial was for abuse of authority for illegally ordering the search and seizure of the home of his former security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos. On Tuesday evening, he was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison on the charges, the first Peruvian president in history to suffer such humiliation. In contrast to his earlier belligerence, Fujimori calmly told the court that he would appeal the verdict, a very different response from the arm-failing, red-faced tirade of the previous day.
Almost immediately, another, more dire trial began. In this new proceeding, Fujimori is accused of giving the green light to the actions of a death squad, known as the Colina Group. The case against Fujimori involves the killing of 15 people at a barbeque in downtown Lima in 1991 and the murders of nine students and a professor from a local teachers' college the following year. It also includes the charge of ordering the kidnapping and torture of a journalist and a businessman, also in 1992. The prosecution has asked for a 30-year sentence. On Wednesday, Fujimori reiterated his innocence, claiming he had no prior knowledge of the Colina Group.
All the charges involve the ex-security chief Montesinos, who is the alleged creator of the death squad. After Fujimori went into exile in 2000, Montesinos fled to Venezuela, which allowed him to be extradited to Peru in 2001. Fujimori claims that his relationship with Montesinos was fully within accepted government bureaucratic norms and practice. However, during one of his own trials, Montesinos said that all of his actions were predicated on orders from Fujimori. Montesinos has already been sentenced in 25 other cases.
One other upcoming Fujimori trial involves his giving Montesinos a $15-million golden handshake when the government began collapsing in September 2000. Yet another involves the illegal wire tapping and misuse of funds to keep track of and to bribe opponents into submission.
Apart from the initial outburst, Fujimori, 69, dressed sharply in a pinstriped suit, alternated between looking bored, scribbling in a small notebook, and annoyed, pursuing his lips and knitting his brow. His supporters were not surprised by the results of the first trial but are nevertheless combative. "This verdict demonstrates that the president will not receive a free and fair trial. The court can do what it likes, but Peruvians will be the final jurors and they will vindicate him," said Rep. Carlos Raffo, a member of a pro-Fujimori congressional caucus. Fujimori's opponents, however, see the ex-president's courtroom behavior as evidence that he is still desperately trying to regain power.
Fujimori has both a distinguished and an ignominious place in Peruvian history. The son of Japanese immigrants, he ran for the presidency in 1990 as an unknown, bolting from obscurity to beat the frontrunner, the country's best-known author Mario Vargas Llosa. Even though he had no experience in government, his administration swiftly dealt with runaway inflation, which was running near 8,000% when he took power. When Congress rejected strict anti-terrorism legislation, Fujimori simply closed it and the judiciary in April 1992, announcing that he would rule by decree. A few months later, the leaders of two brutal insurgencies were captured and Fujimori's star rose further.
A tailor-made constitution allowed him to run again in 1995 and, given the defeat of inflation and terrorism, he easily scored the most lopsided victory in the country's modern history. He ran for a third term in 2000 and won, but the elections were largely seen as fraudulent and his new term ended almost as soon as it began when a corruption scandal broke in September of that year.
With the arrest of his closest associates, Fujimori fled to Japan, his ancestral homeland, in November 2000 and was granted citizenship there. Peru was unable to extradite him from Japan. But then Fujimori did the unexpected and secretly flew to Chile, Peru's southern neighbor, in October 2005. The idea was to return to Peru from Chile to possibly run in the 2006 elections, but those plans were foiled by Chilean police, who promptly arrested him. Fujimori did come home, but under guard. The Chilean Supreme Court approved his extradition on seven counts in September.