Peruvian Congress Chief Ousted; Fujimori Off to Brunei

Reuters -- 13 November 2000

by Alistair Scrutton

LIMA - Peru's opposition ousted the powerful head of Congress, a key ally of President Alberto Fujimori, on Monday shortly after the president raised eyebrows by abandoning the political turmoil raging at home and flying off to a regional trade summit in Brunei.

Opposition parties voted out ``iron lady'' Martha Hildebrandt by 64 votes to 59, deepening Fujimori's woes as he faced allegations he had received $1 million a decade ago from the late notorious Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar.

Justice Minister Alberto Bustamante dismissed as ``nonsense'' the allegations, made by Escobar's brother Roberto to Colombian news magazine Cambio at the weekend, that Fujimori's fugitive former spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos channeled the cash to Fujimori in 1989 for his first election campaign.

The allegation was the latest in a string of corruption charges made against the ex-spy chief, the president's closest aide for 10 years, who is in hiding and wanted on charges he laundered at least $58 million in overseas bank accounts and ordered murder, torture and harassment of opponents.

It was the opposition's second attempt to topple Hildebrandt, whom they accuse of blocking investigations into Montesinos and into alleged misdemeanors during Fujimori's tenure. A similar motion a month ago narrowly failed.

Her ouster could seriously weaken Fujimori's control over the country, political analysts say.

Fujimori flew to Brunei for a two-day summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum that begins Wednesday. He left shortly after midday, an hour and a half before the censure vote.

``I'm surprised that with this instability the president has decided to leave ... He assumes the consequences of his act,'' Peru's respected state human rights ombudsman Jorge Santistevan told local CPN radio news.

Fujimori's office said he would also attend an Ibero-American summit in Panama on Friday and Saturday after the APEC meeting.

Fujimori stalwart, Martha Chavez, said the president was not fleeing. ``No one need worry, the president is not someone who runs away from problems,'' she said.

``Political Cannibalism''

``This is political cannibalism,'' Prime Minister Federico Salas told reporters as the political outlook darkened.

It was not immediately clear who would take the place of Hildebrandt. Congress was suspended and was due to reconvene at 6 p.m. (2300 GMT). Congress was also due to set up a special commission to investigate the Montesinos corruption charges.

Fujimori earlier eluded the news media that has been following his every move for weeks by dispatching the media to a beach house some 22 miles (35 km) out of Lima to inspect the alleged spoils turned up in a property linked to Montesinos.

The president last week showed off watches and jewels seized during a search of Montesinos' wife's apartment that prosecutors have said was illegal.

Fujimori has so far led a fruitless three-week hunt for Montesinos. Allegations that Montesinos was involved in arms trafficking and bribery led to Fujimori's decision in September to step down after one year of a five-year term. He has called new elections in April in which he will not run.

Montesinos has been in hiding since defying Fujimori and flying home last month after a failed asylum bid in Panama.

A disgraced former army captain, Montesinos ran Peru's National Intelligence Service (SIN) amid allegations he had spied for the CIA (news - web sites), ordered state-sponsored torture and death squads, skimmed profits off the illegal drug trade and extorted money in exchange for fixing trials.

Fujimori, who until now defended Montesinos for his success in defeating leftist rebels and hunting down drug traffickers, has said he knew ``nothing'' about the money laundering, a statement met with skepticism by the opposition.