LIMA, Peru — Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison Tuesday for death squad killings and kidnappings during his 1990s struggle against Shining Path insurgents.
Outside court, pro- and anti-Fujimori activists fought with fists, sticks and rocks. About 50 people chanted "Fujimori killer!" while several hundred chanted "Fujimori innocent!" before riot police separated them.
The court convicted the 70-year-old former leader, who was widely credited for rescuing Peru from the brink of economic and political collapse, of "crimes against humanity" including two operations by the military hit squad that claimed 25 lives. None of the victims, the three-judge court found, were connected to any insurgency.
Presiding judge Cesar San Martin said there was no question Fujimori authorized the creation of the Colina unit, which the court said killed at least 50 people as the government battled Shining Path terror with a "parallel terror apparatus" of its own. He sentenced Fujimori to 25 years in prison, only five fewer than the maximum.
Victims' family members nodded with satisfaction and shed tears in the courtroom as the verdict was read.
"For the first time, the memory of our relatives is dignified in a ruling that says none of the victims was linked to any terrorist group," said Gisela Ortiz, whose brother was killed.
Fujimori, who proclaimed his innocence in a roar when the 15-month televised trial began, barely looked up, uttering only four words _ "I move to nullify" _ before turning, waving to his children, and walking out of the courtroom at the Lima police base where he has been held and tried since his 2007 extradition from Chile.
His supporters in the courtroom shook their heads in disgust and groaned in exasperation. Fujimori's congresswoman daughter, Keiko, called the conviction foreordained and "full of hate and vengeance." She said it would only strengthen her candidacy for the 2011 presidential race.
"Fujimorism will continue to advance. Today we're first in the polls and will continue to be so," she said outside the courtroom. She has vowed to pardon her father if elected.
But some political analysts think Keiko Fujimori, 33, is more likely weakened by the verdict and would become a one-issue candidate. Her party has, after all, just 13 seats in Peru's 120-member congress.
"It's one thing to capitalize on the romantic image of the daughter defending a presumably innocent father, another defending a sentenced criminal," said Nelson Manrique, a Catholic University professor.
Human rights activists heralded the case as the first in which a democratically elected former president was extradited and tried in his home country for rights violations.
Although none of the trial's 80 witnesses directly accused Fujimori of ordering killings, kidnappings or disappearances, the court said the former mathematics professor and son of Japanese immigrants bore responsibility by allowing the Colina group to be formed.
It said Fujimori's disgraced intelligence chief and close confidant, Vladimiro Montesinos, was in direct control of the unit.
And it noted that Fujimori freed jailed Colina members with a blanket 1995 amnesty for soldiers while state security agencies engaged in a "very complete and extensive" cover-up of the group's deeds.
The Colina group was formed in 1991. In its first raid, using silencer-equipped machine guns, the group killed 15 people at a barbecue, including an 8-year-old boy. The intended victims, it turned out, lived on a different floor. The following year, the group "disappeared" nine students and a leftist professor at La Cantuta University.
In both cases, the killers targeted alleged sympathizers of the Shining Path, which was killing Peruvians with nearly daily car bombings. The group was devastated by the September 1992 arrest of its charismatic leader, Abimael Guzman, but some 500 Shining Path remnants remain active in Peru's jungle, financed by the cocaine trade. Fujimori also was convicted of two 1992 kidnappings: the 10-day abduction of opposition businessman Samuel Dyer and the one-day kidnapping of Gustavo Gorriti, a journalist who had criticized the president's shuttering of the opposition-led Congress and courts.
In the trial, prosecutors presented declassified cables showing that U.S. diplomats including then-Ambassador Anthony Quainton repeatedly questioned Fujimori and his aides about reports of extrajudicial killings by his military.
"He never wanted to talk about it very much. He always, of course, said that human rights abuses were not tolerated by his government," Quainton, now an American University professor, told The Associated Press by phone from Washington.
Fujimori has already been sentenced to six years in prison for abuse of power and faces two corruption trials, the first set to begin in May, on charges including bribing lawmakers and paying off a TV station.
His 10-year presidency ended in disgrace in 2000, when videotapes showed Montesinos, now serving a 20-year term for corruption and gunrunning, bribing lawmakers and businessmen. Fujimori fled to Japan, then attempted a return five years later via Chile.
"We understand Mr. Fujimori will appeal the ruling," said a Japanese foreign ministry official who declined to be named in line with department policy.
"The Japanese government will watch legal procedures for Mr. Fujimori," the official said.
Fujimori remains remarkably popular and his successors have maintained his market-friendly policies. Peru had Latin America's strongest economic growth from 2002-2008, averaging 6.7 percent. A November poll found two-thirds of Peruvians approve of Fujimori's rule.
In his final appeal Friday, Fujimori cast himself as a victim of political persecution, saying the charges against him reflect a double standard. Why, he asked, isn't current President Alan Garcia also being prosecuted, since it was from Garcia, who also preceded him in office, that Fujimori inherited the messy conflict that would claim 70,000 lives.
Garcia denies responsibility for human rights abuses during his 1985-90 administration _ and has the power to pardon Fujimori.
Human rights advocates called the verdict historic.
"What this verdict says is that these crimes did in fact happen and that Fujimori was in fact responsible for them, and that's something Peruvians needed to hear," said Maria McFarland, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch, who was in the courtroom.
"For so many years, certain sectors in Peru have said that you have to look the other way and refused to acknowledge what happened."
Associated Press writers Carla Salazar and Andrew Whalen contributed to this report.