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Peru: Why Fujimori needs to watch his tongue

Relatives of Peru’s imprisoned ex-president, Alberto Fujimori, have pushed for a pardon on questionable claims of ill health. Now it’s up to the current leader, Humala, who once revolted against him.

LIMA, Peru — Even from the jail cell where he is serving a 25-year sentence for embezzling public funds and directing death squads, ex-President Alberto Fujimori continues to cast a long shadow over Peru.

A high-profile campaign, backed by many media here, for a humanitarian pardon appears set to reach its climax in the coming weeks as the current president, Ollanta Humala, finally reviews a medical report on his disgraced predecessor.

Fujimori’s family and supporters are demanding the 74-year-old former leader be released due to alleged ill health and have repeatedly called for “compassion” from Humala.

In Peru, humanitarian pardons are often given to terminally ill prisoners with just a few weeks to live.

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Fujimori, whose hard-right 1990-2000 presidency continues to polarize Peruvians, has had several minor operations to treat cancerous lesions on his tongue, which first cropped up while he was in his office.

But according to recent leaks of the medical report, he is now clear of the cancer.

However, the document is said to conclude that he does suffer from depression, with five psychiatrists on the medical team split over how serious his condition was.

Humala has remained inscrutable, giving no indication of his likely decision. He recently said he would not bow to any “pressures” regarding the pardon, one of his few public comments on a story that has barely slipped off Peru’s front pages for six months.

That could be interpreted as a slap in the face for Fujimori’s supporters — but it might also have been aimed at the human rights and democracy activists who opposed the former president’s authoritarian ways when he was in power and now argue he should remain behind bars.

A one-time leftist army officer who famously led a revolt against Fujimori’s election-fixing in 2000, President Humala has since drifted rightward and, without a congressional majority, may be reluctant to alienate the “Fujimorista” grouping, the second largest in congress.

Meanwhile, prominent representatives, including the former leader’s daughter Keiko and son Kenji Fujimori, insist their father’s life is in danger as long as he remains in jail.

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“The fact that the cancerous cells have been extirpated doesn’t mean that the cancer will not return,” Keiko Fujimori, who narrowly lost a presidential runoff election to Humala in 2011,said in a radio interview in response to the medical report.

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“Normally, to be able to say that a cancer has been cured, 10 years have to pass, which is not the case with my father,” she added.

That view has received predictably short shrift from the relatives of the victims of Fujimori’s death squads. The victims were suspected members of the Shining Path rebel group, although many turned out to have nothing to do with the uber-violent revolutionaries.

“The message that a pardon would send could hardly be more serious. What are we saying, that it no longer matters who you kill or rob, that you will be rewarded?” Gisela Ortiz told GlobalPost.

Fujimori was convicted of ordering the slaying of her brother Enrique Ortiz, a 21-year-old physical education student — with socialist sympathies but no proven connection to armed groups — and eight other university students and a professor in 1992.

Lawyer Carlos Rivera, who represents the families of many of Fujimori’s victims, also poured scorn on the response of the ex-president’s family to the medical report.

“It is unprecedented,” he told GlobalPost. “Judging by their reaction, you would think that Fujimori’s children were disappointed that their father does not have cancer.”

He added: “I would not be surprised if he was depressed. He is a former president who is now living behind bars. That does not put his life in danger.”

Fujimori swept to power in 1990 with Peru in economic shambles — including one of the highest-ever levels of hyperinflation — and the Shining Path starting to bring its bloodshed down from the Andes to the capital, Lima.

Under Fujmori, both problems were swiftly tackled head on. But the methods used remain hugely controversial.

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As well as running clandestine death squads, the president implemented a harsh free-market shock therapy, dubbed “Fujishock,” which plunged millions into destitution — despite a key campaign promise never to carry out such a policy.

Meanwhile, graft became so rife under Fujimori that anti-corruption group Transparency International once placed him seventh in its all-time ranking of crooked heads of state, thanks to the disappearance of $600 million of public funds.

But despite his crimes, Fujimori is revered as a national savior by a hard core of about 1 in 5 Peruvians, who long for his strict law and order approach and support for remote communities in the Amazon and Andes that too often have been ignored by Peru’s governments.

But far more than Fujimori’s personal fate rests on Humala’s decision.

Many view his 2009 trial as a model of due process and fairness — one of the very few in a country where the justice system is riddled with corruption, delays that can stretch into decades and judicial incompetence.

Dismissing that trial would place Peru on a collision course with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the judicial arm of the Organization of American States. It has ruled there can be no amnesties or other forms of forgiveness for crimes against humanity, as Fujimori’s human rights abuses are classed.

It could also strengthen the calls of Shining Path sympathizers for a general amnesty to include those convicted of terrorist offenses.

Now as Humala eyes his legacy, Peruvians will soon learn whether he regards a congressional alliance with the Fujimoristas as more important than upholding a landmark human rights trial for a corrupt ex-president against whom he once mutinied.