For the first time in history, a democratically elected Latin American leader has been convicted of serious human rights violations by a court of his own nation.
Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was found guilty by Peru’s Supreme Court of murder, bodily harm, and two cases of kidnapping and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The charges, which arose out of a series of crimes committed in the early 1990s during the Peruvian Government’s ‘Dirty War’ against communist insurgents, were presented to the court by public prosecutor José Palaéz Bardales and by Gloria Cano, the lead lawyer for Peru’s pre-eminent human rights group, APRODEH, representing victims’ families. Fujimori was extradited to Peru from Chile on September 20, 2007 after returning from voluntary exile in Japan, his second country of nationality.
The human rights violations for which Fujimori’s extradition was authorised were the Barrios Altos and La Cantuta massacres, and the ‘Basements of the Army Intelligence Service’ case, which included the kidnappings of journalist Gustavo Gorriti and businessman Samuel Dyer. All of the crimes were perpetrated while Fujimori was president of Peru and thus Supreme Chief of the Armed Forces.
The decision, which was unanimously adopted by the three presiding judges, concluded that Fujimori bore individual criminal responsibility because he had had effective military command over the perpetrators. The defence had maintained that although Fujimori regrets the killings, he was neither involved in the planning of the attacks nor did he give approval for them.
Crimes in a Dirty War
Opposition businessman Samuel Dyer was kidnapped in 1992 and detained for 10 days under a supposed arrest warrant for terrorism. The same year, journalist Gustavo Gorriti – who wrote the book The Shining Path: A History of the Millenarian War in Peru first published in Peru in 1990 – was detained and interrogated. They were both held in the “Pentagonito” (Little Pentagon), a clandestine detention centre inside the General Army Barracks where opposition figures were punished, tortured, and executed.
On November 3, 1991, a group of 15 people – including an 8-year old boy – attending a barbecue in the Barrios Altos district of Lima were mistaken for Shining Path members and were massacred. Members of the paramilitary Colina Group, which was authorised and protected by Fujimori, were found to be responsible.
Grupo Colina was formed in response to the launch of an internal armed conflict in Peru by the Maoist guerrilla organization ‘Shining Path’ in 1980, which had as its stated aim the creation of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Set up in the 1960s, the Shining Path was dedicated to the overthrow of the Peruvian Government.
Whilst judges were investigating the Barrios Altos massacre in 1995, Fujimori and Congress granted an amnesty covering all human rights violations committed by state forces and barred the judiciary from reviewing it. The subjects of the amnesty were all those members of the security forces and civilians who were the subject of a complaint, investigation, indictment, trial or conviction, or who were serving prison sentences, for human rights violations committed between May 1980 and 15 June 1995. Two weeks later, Congress passed a second amnesty law which prohibited the judiciary from ruling on the legality or applicability of the first amnesty law, in order to entrench the measure against judicial review. The Amnesty Laws were repealed after the fall of the Fujimori government in 2000.
On March 26, 1996, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (CIDH) accepted the accusation of APRODEH in name of the family members of the 15 killed and the four wounded in the Barrios Altos case. On March 14, 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) found in the Barrios Altos Case v. Peru that the Amnesty Laws were without legal force, ordered the reopening of the investigation, and directed the Peruvian Government to pay reparations to the victims. In the years that followed, the Peruvian government recognised that the Peruvian state was responsible for the massacre.
In its judgment, the IACHR found that Peru’s amnesty laws aimed at protecting military officers from prosecution for rights abuses were incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights and that “all amnesty provisions, provisions on prescription and the establishment of measures designed to eliminate responsibility are inadmissible, because they are intended to prevent the investigation and punishment of those responsible for serious human rights violations such as torture, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution and forced disappearance, all of them prohibited because they violate non-derogable rights recognized by international human rights law.”
Student Massacre: La Cantuta
Fujimori was also found responsible for the La Cantuta massacre. Two days after the Shining Path’s Tarata bombing left over 40 dead in the capital in July 1992, members of the Colina Group stormed into the residences at Lima’s La Cantuta University. They kidnapped a professor and nine students believed to be linked to the bombing, who were never seen again. Prosecutors later found unmarked graves with the burned remains of some of the victims.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) also examined the Cantuta killings (La Cantuta v. Peru). It accepted in its judgment of November 26, 2006 that there had been systematic and generalized practices of illegal and arbitrary detentions, torture, extra-legal executions and enforced disappearances during the relevant period of the Cantuta killings in 1992 and that the Colina unit was responsible for the killings.
Verdict on a Former President
Delivering the verdict on Fujimori before Peru’s Supreme Court on April 7, 2009, Chief Judge Cesar San Martin declared that the crimes were crimes of state. “Murder and serious injury under the law constitute crimes against humanity,” the judge said, adding that the crimes were aggravated by cruel treatment of the victims.
“There was no institutional willingness to clarify the crimes of human rights violations, the response was regrettable and obstructive, (since) the objective was to deny the deeds,” the court’s ruling emphasized. The ruling also said that “the cover-up mechanism was so amazing, (and) it was firmly maintained at the time, but it could not have been carried out or consolidated without the support of the head of state.”
The judges noted that state security agencies engaged in a “very complete and extensive” cover-up of the Colina Group’s deeds.
Under Peruvian law, enforced disappearance has been a crime since 1991 and has been considered a crime against humanity since 1998. The definition of crime against humanity as it appears in the Peruvian Criminal Code differs, however, from that prevailing in international law. “Enforced disappearances, torture and rape are crimes that are not subject to statute of limitations if they are committed on a widespread basis, as happened in Peru,” said Amnesty International special adviser Javier Zuniga, who had been monitoring the trial in Lima.
The Impetus to End Impunity in Latin America
Human Rights Watch welcomed the verdict, saying it promised to end “the tendency that has existed in Latin America for many years of impunity in the face of these types of crimes.” The case was watched particularly closely in Guatemala, where there have not yet been any investigations into human rights violations, disappearances, torture and massacres committed in the past by Presidents and military dictators. “The lesson for Guatemala is: if Peru can end impunity, so can we,” wrote The Guatamela Times in an Editorial on April 12.
The UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission, which was formed in 1994 with a view to ending Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, found that around 200,000 people were forcibly disappeared or killed and that 669 massacres had taken place, mainly in indigenous Mayan villages. In February 2009, Alvaro Colom became the first Guatemalan president to formally acknowledge that genocide against the Mayan people had taken place during the civil war, one of the findings of the Commission’s 1999 report. In 2006, Spanish judge Santiago Pedraz issued an international arrest warrant against former de facto President Efraín Ríos Montt, for genocide, torture, illegal detention and state-sponsored terrorism. His extradition to Spain was refused by a Guatemalan court in December 2007.
Katherine Iliopoulos is an international lawyer based in The Hague, Netherlands.
Peru: Fujimori Verdict a Rights Victory
Human Rights Watch
April 7, 2009
Peru: The Conviction of Fujimori – A Milestone in the Fight for Justice
April 7, 2009
How the Fujimori murder sentence helps Guatemala’s pursuit of justice for past atrocities
The Guatemala Times
April 12, 2009