Peru’s Fujimori gets 25 years prison for massacres

LIMA, (Reuters) – Former Peruvian President Alberto  Fujimori was convicted of human rights crimes and sentenced to  25 years in prison yesterday, the first time a democratically  elected Latin American president has been found guilty in his  own country of such offenses.

A three-judge panel convicted him of ordering a military  death squad to carry out two massacres that killed 25 people  during his 1990-2000 rule, when he was battling communist  guerrillas. Nearly 70,000 people died in two decades of  conflict in the Andean country.

Once lauded as a hero, Fujimori, 70, could spend the rest  of his life in prison. The verdict is likely to have  far-reaching political implications for Peru.

“He was the president who saved our country from  terrorism,” the former president’s daughter Keiko Fujimori, a  presidential hopeful and popular lawmaker, said as she called  for supporters to march in the streets to protest the verdict.

The elder Fujimori did not react to the ruling except to  say that he will appeal it.

Fujimori’s popularity soared when he defeated the brutal  Shining Path guerrillas, tamed economic chaos and freed dozens  of hostages taken by the Tupac Amaru insurgency during a siege  at the Japanese ambassador’s house in Lima.

But a corruption scandal involving his spy chief, Vladimiro  Montesinos, sank his government in 2000. Fujimori fled to exile  in Japan, the country where his parents were born. He was later  arrested in Chile and extradited to Peru, where he often  snoozed through testimony and took off his socks.

Other Latin American rulers faced trials over human rights  crimes before Fujimori, but they were military dictators or  prosecuted outside their home countries. Chilean General  Augusto Pinochet died in 2006 before he could be convicted.

Activists saw the trial as a turning point for Peru, still  coming to terms with a bloody civil war that started in 1980.

“For the first time, the Peruvian justice system rose to  the occasion in this historic fight against impunity,” said  Gisela Ortiz, whose brother was killed at La Cantuta University  in 1992 as Fujimori’s squads hunted for presumed leftists.

Fujimori’s conviction stemmed from the La Cantuta killings  and a 1991 massacre in the Barrios Altos section of Lima.

Many abuses by people on both sides of the civil war have  never been prosecuted, and thousands of unmarked graves scar  the countryside.

The Shining Path, led by a Maoist philosophy professor  named Abimael Guzman, was perhaps the most brutal of Latin  America’s insurgencies. It beheaded people with machetes in the  plazas of Andean towns, bombed the capital and killed  journalists. Guzman is currently in prison in Peru.

The state, which was nearly toppled, struggled for years to  halt the onslaught and sent guns to groups of vigilante  peasants in the hinterlands to help the army.

The violence also ensnared the current president, Alan  Garcia. He has been haunted by accusations that he violated  rights during his first term from 1985-1990. Pressure to put  him on trial may grow following the Fujimori verdict.

“With this ruling … the Peruvian court has shown the  world that even former heads of state cannot expect to get away  with serious crimes,” said Maria McFarland of the group Human  Rights Watch.

Garcia has fended off charges by saying he was a democratic  leader who lacked total control over the military, whereas  Fujimori turned into an authoritarian president and shut down  Congress.

Already a front-runner for the 2011 presidential race,  Fujimori’s daughter, a conservative like her father, has  painted the former president as a savior rather than sinner.

If no candidate wins a majority in the initial election,  the 33-year-old could end up in a run-off against fellow  hopeful Ollanta Humala, a leftist ally of Venezuelan President  Hugo Chavez, who nearly won in 2006.

Garcia, who is barred by the country’s constitution from  running for re-election in 2011, has told foreign investors he  will do his best to derail Humala’s candidacy by persuading  Peruvians to reject leftist models that have regained  popularity in Latin America.