Outlook; Peru's Fujimori proving more dictator than democrat

The Houston Chronicle -- 6 August 1999

by Jo-Marie Burt

Peru's president, Alberto Fujimori, is not a man who likes outside interference. In April 1992, he dissolved the Peruvian Congress, arguing that legislators were obstructing his plans to crack down on terrorism.

In April 1997, even as painstaking negotiations to end a four-month-long hostage crisis at the Japanese ambassador's residence were taking place, he gave the order to storm the building, freeing about 70 hostages but killing all 14 of the rebels - including those who had surrendered.

So it was foreseeable that he would not take it well when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which has jurisdiction throughout the Americas, announced last month its unanimous decision to deem invalid Peru's military trial of four Chileans accused of belonging to the rebel Tupac Amar Revolutionary Movement.

The Chileans were convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1994 by anonymous judges belonging to a secret military tribunal - the same court system that sentenced U.S. citizen Lori Berenson, who was arrested in 1995 for her alleged involvement in the MRTA, to life imprisonment.

To show his displeasure over the court's ruling, Fujimori has decided to remove Peru from the Court of Human Rights' jurisdiction, an unprecedented move that has human-rights experts worried not only about rights in Peru but about the future of the Inter-American system of rights in general.

Other Latin American countries have delayed implementation of the court's decisions. But eventually all complied - until now.

The July court decision affirmed what Peruvian and international rights experts had been saying since the installation of the "faceless" military tribunals in 1992: These secret proceedings constitute summary trials by active military officers who could hardly be considered impartial, and they deny due process and legitimate rights of defense, including sufficient time for attorneys to view files and to cross-examine witnesses. The court demanded that the Peruvian government grant the Chileans a civilian hearing.

Fujimori and his supporters then launched a vitriolic campaign to discredit the Inter-American Court and its ruling. One ruling-party legislator actually accused the court of having "terrorist sympathies." Others said the court could not review Peruvian laws, and that to do so was a violation of Peru's national sovereignty.

This is, of course, ludicrous: The court's whole reason for being is to ensure that member states uphold the international human-rights obligations they promised to defend - including due process - when they signed the American Convention on Human Rights.

Behind Fujimori's withdrawal from the Inter-American Court is a political calculation. Elections are scheduled for April 2000, and Fujimori and his allies have been engaged in all sorts of machinations - including outright intimidation of opposition leaders and the independent press - to assure his re-election.

The Inter-American Court is scheduled to hear a case directly relating to Fujimori's ability to run for a third consecutive term. In 1997, when Peru's Constitutional Tribunal declared a law facilitating Fujimori's re-election unconstitutional, the ruling majority in Congress had the three majority judges in the case sacked. They are now looking to the Inter-American Court for restitution.

But the current political calculus is even more sinister. Fujimori and his allies are seeking not just another term but the consolidation of an authoritarian political regime backed by the power to intimidate, a task being carried out by Fujimori's top adviser, Vladimiro Montesinos, who runs the Intelligence Service.

Montesinos is also reportedly directing the campaign against Fujimori's detractors. A few years ago, journalists reported the existence of a 1989 military plan that laid the blueprints for a military-led government that would defeat terrorism and rule for a minimum of 20 to 30 years.

The coup was one step in putting such a plan in place; another key step was Fujimori's bid to seal his alliance with the military by giving it greater control over the counterinsurgency war, via institutions such as the military courts.

Removing Peru from one of the few international institutions to which Peruvian citizens can turn if their rights have been violated is one more step toward consolidating this authoritarian plan.

Fujimori has long demonstrated his disdain for democratic institutions within Peru. Now that he has launched an attack on international institutions aimed at protecting internationally recognized rights from tyrannical governments, the international community must respond forcefully to this transgression and demand that Peru assume its international obligations.

Otherwise, the tyranny of the pro-Fujimori majority, in the name of opposing terrorism, will move closer to becoming a full-fledged dictatorship.