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Fujimori’s return rouses fans and foes

Few people in Peru are discounting the possibility of a comeback for ex-President Alberto Fujimori, who is now being held in Chile.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

His campaign office is hidden behind an unmarked door on a nondescript street. There are no banners, bunting or posters of the candidate, who at the moment is in custody in Chile. But the inconspicuous setting perfectly suits Alberto Fujimori's stealthy pursuit of Peru's presidency.

Fujimori, the former authoritarian president who was driven from office after a decade in power, has not set foot in his home country since 2000, when he fled into self-imposed exile in Japan. He is legally banned from holding office until 2011, and Peru's current government is hoping to extradite and try him on charges including financial corruption and sanctioning death-squads.

"It's not only a legal matter, it's also a moral and ethical matter that the country needs to clear up," said Justice Minister Alejandro Tudela, who hopes to extradite Fujimori before the term of the current president, Alejandro Toledo, ends in July. "What we're trying to do, while giving him all the rights to due process, is to finally bring him to justice."

Don't discount a comeback
Still, few people here -- including those who revere Fujimori for having quashed a violent, Maoist insurgency and those who revile him as a thieving, repressive autocrat -- dismiss the possibility of his political resurrection.

As president between 1990 and 2000, Fujimori, now 67, aroused equally fervent admiration and outrage. Now, his extraordinary attempt to secretly return to Peru from Japan this month has reignited passions on both sides. The globe-hopping journey came to a halt Nov. 7 in Santiago, the capital of Chile, where he was arrested in his hotel and imprisoned in a police academy.

On Tuesday, several thousand people marched through Lima, demanding his extradition. They included relatives of people who were killed by paramilitary squads allegedly formed with Fujimori's consent. A new survey by the private Peruvian firm Apoyo found that 60 percent of those polled believe he should not be allowed to run in the April elections and 69 percent believe he is guilty of corruption and human rights violations.

"We cannot forgive Fujimori or his supporters after what they've done," said Raida Condor, a demonstrator whose son Armando was one of nine students and a teacher abducted and killed at Lima's La Cantuta University in 1992. "These people took away our children. I will always fight against them. If they kill me, I don't care."

Other Peruvians remember Fujimori's presidency in a different light, recalling him as a strong leader who defeated a communist threat. In the Apoyo survey, when people were asked which major political figure they most closely identified with, 18 percent chose Fujimori, placing him second after Lourdes Flores Nano, a conservative member of Congress, who was chosen by 21 percent.

Election season
Although he is unlikely to be released by the Jan. 9 filing deadline for presidential candidates, and would be subject to arrest if he tried to enter Peru, Fujimori's political allies said he would legally be allowed to run from abroad; they also say the congressional ban on his holding office is unconstitutional.

Fujimori's presence in Santiago also puts him as close as possible to Peru during the election season. Some analysts and supporters have said his plan all along was to remain in Chile, which is known to demand extensive evidence for extradition requests and has denied the return of four exiles associated with Fujimori. On Tuesday, Chile's high court rejected a request for Fujimori's release.

Fujimori's backers are keeping a low profile, partly in fear of reprisals from people who hate him. His campaign organizers are mostly from three political parties that were allied with him in office. One is a former legislator who was suspended for her alleged links to Fujimori's former intelligence chief, Vladimir Montesinos, now serving a 15-year prison sentence for corruption and being tried for other crimes including arms dealing, bribing legislators and organizing death squads.

Yet behind closed doors, they describe Fujimori in glowing terms: a brilliant political strategist and courageous anti-communist who systematically dismantled the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group that had sown terror throughout Peru during the 1980s. Today, they assert, Peru needs his strong hand to rescue the ailing economy and revive national leadership after the unpopular Toledo leaves office.

"It's a difficult campaign, certainly," said Martha Chavez, the suspended legislator who is a major figure in his attempted comeback. But she added, "We're confident that the majority of Peruvians want him back to set the country on the path to order, to authority, to efficiency and to reestablish a government that has a real presence here."

Tudela said he didn't believe Fujimori had even a slight chance of being elected and that his political ambitions should be permanently quashed after the state presents its case against him.

"There's a saying that each country has the president it deserves," Tudela said. "I hope that Peru will never deserve again a president like him."

Although Fujimori is basically incommunicado now, he operated freely in Japan -- which accepted him because of his Japanese ancestry and despite an Interpol arrest warrant -- and constantly spewed political messages over the Internet from his Tokyo apartment. Recently he had hinted strongly that he would embark on a political comeback crusade, even though he was wanted in Peru for more than 20 crimes.

The most serious charges against the former president are those involving the La Cantuta killings and the deaths of 15 party-goers in 1991 who were mistaken for rebels. Peruvian officials allege that the killings were carried out by death squads led by Montesinos and operating with Fujimori's consent.

Human Rights Watch: 'A political mafia'
Although supporters praise Fujimori's control of the past government, critics say that argument only strengthens their case that he was behind the killings.

"He was . . . the head of a political mafia that held Peru captive for 10 years," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, who was in Lima this week to discuss extradition strategy with government officials. "There is enough evidence to show that these death squads committed their crimes with the full knowledge and involvement of the highest levels of Fujimori's government."

Gisella Ortiz, whose brother Enrique was 21 when he was killed at La Cantuta, joined the march Tuesday to demand Fujimori's extradition. Last week, she and other victims' relatives traveled to Chile to highlight the parallels between Fujimori and Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator now charged with numerous human rights abuses.

"Chile has also lived with political violence and has the responsibility to return Fujimori to Peru so he can be judged for his crimes," said Ortiz, 33, who wore a picture of her brother around her neck. "We have to be hopeful that after 13 years, the final result will be in favor of the victims' families and the state of Peru."

As the marchers passed a filling station, Ricardo Herbozo, 42, paused from pumping gas to watch. He said he had voted three times for Fujimori in past elections but would not do so again, especially after seeing courtroom videotapes of Montesinos paying off legislators.

"All of his colleagues were corrupt, so I think he probably was, too," Herbozo said. But three pumps away, a co-worker cried out softly, "Viva Fujimori!"