The trial of Fujimori

Ex-president Alberto Fujimori goes on trial this month in Peru accused of human rights violations an

The trial of ex-Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, due to begin on December 10, will put the spotlight on the large scale of corruption and human rights violations that took place in Peru in the 1990s.

If convicted, he will be the first elected Latin American president in living memory to go to jail.

Hitherto only a handful of military dictators – including members of the Argentine junta that seized power in 1976 and the Bolivia’s General Luis Garcia Meza who overturned democracy in 1980 with the support of that country’s cocaine mafia – have ended up behind bars in their own country.

Fujimori was extradited from Chile to Peru in September, following lengthy judicial proceedings in Santiago. The Chilean Supreme Court finally ruled the crimes allegedly committed by Fujimori were sufficient to justify extradition.

The case against Fujimori centres on his involvement in the corrupt use of public funds in Peru during his ten-year rule as president, as well as his role in authorising two now notorious cases of human rights violations.

The first of these took place in November 1991 in a Lima suburb known as the Barrios Altos, when the military assassinated several people attending a party.

The second was the killing, in July 1992, of a teacher and nine students at the ‘La Cantuta’ university in Lima. In both cases, ‘La Colina’ death squad was immediately responsible.

The scale of political corruption under Fujimori was revealed by the screening of large numbers of videos recorded by Fujimori’s security factotum, Vladimiro Montesinos.

These showed politicians and opinion formers receiving wads of dollar bills from Montesinos to buy their support.

The recordings, screened on Peruvian television, caused such a scandal as to precipitate Fujimori’s downfall at the end of 2000. On fleeing Peru, Fujimori is thought to have taken large amounts of cash with him.

The Barrios Altos and La Cantuta killings represent only isolated instances of human rights violation. According to the authoritative Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, published in 2003, some 70,000 Peruvians lost their lives in the course of a twenty-year war (1980-2000) between the Peruvian state and the Maoist-inspired Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurgency. The vast majority of victims were innocent peasants caught in the crossfire in this protracted and brutal conflict.

Fujimori was elected president in 1990 on a left-of-centre ticket, but quickly staged a U-turn on taking up office.

His government initiated a thorough-going privatisation of state companies, and liberalised both trade and foreign investment barriers.

In April 1992, with the help of the military, he overturned the constitution by closing Congress and sacking the Supreme Court.

His success in quelling Sendero Luminoso (following the capture of its leader Abimael Guzman in September 1992) and in dealing with rampant inflation made Fujimori a popular figure.

His palace coup was widely applauded. When, having changed the constitution to allow himself to be re-elected, he won the 1995 elections with more than 60% of the vote.

His authoritarian regime – which respected democratic forms rather than content – ended up using ever more blatant violations of legal procedure to secure a second re-election in 2000.

The country was effectively run in these years by a troika of Fujimori, Montesinos and the head of the army. When Montesinos’ links with arms and drug trafficking mafias became known, Fujimori’s backers in Washington ended up dropping their Peruvian client.

The return of Fujimori to Peruvian soil followed four years of exile in Japan (where he enjoyed rights of citizenship) and then a further year under house arrest in Chile.

While welcomed by most of his political opponents, his return has caused problems for Peru’s current president Alan García, the very man who Fujimori replaced as president in 1990 and who managed to escape arrest and flee into exile during the 1992 palace coup.

The Fujimori case draws unwelcome attention to García’s own role in overseeing human rights violations in the late 1980s. Indeed, many more people were killed in the 1980s than in the 1990s.

Also, García is widely thought to have been involved in corrupt activities of his own, albeit not on the scale of Fujimori’s.

The return of Fujimori raises some more immediate political difficulties for García. His government has hitherto relied on the support of Fujimori supporters in Congress, since his own party, APRA, lacks a legislative majority. The agenda of the fujimorista bloc in Congress, known by the initials AF, has one key priority: the dropping of all charges against their leader.

The Fujimori brand retains its popularity, especially among poorer Peruvians who saw their living standards rise under the government of ‘el chino’ as the former president is widely known. Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, won by far the largest number of votes in last year’s legislative elections. And her loyalty to her father seems unshakeable.

The trial of Fujimori is unlikely to proceed rapidly, and the Peruvian legal system provides his lawyers with plenty of avenues for negotiating their client’s case.

But given its unique status, the trial of this ex-president will be closely studied by various other former exiled Latin American heads of state accused of illegal acts – whatever the ultimate outcome.

John Crabtree is a research associate at the Latin American Centre, Oxford. His recent book Making Institutions Work in Peru (published by the Institute for the Study of the Americas, London University) deals with issues of democracy, development and social inequality in Peru over the last 25 years.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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