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The Fujimori Verdict and the Justice Cascade: Ending Impunity

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"I governed from hell, not from the palace."

With these fateful words, Alberto Fujimori closed his defense last Friday. After 491 days of trial - where a mountain of evidence tied Fujimori to a campaign of massacres, kidnapping and torture - the one-time Peruvian president claimed that he merely did his job: his policies were the product of Peru's long and brutal counterinsurgency war. In the end, the argument failed him.

Today, a three-judge panel of the Peruvian Supreme Court handed down a 25-year sentence, marking the first time an elected head of state has been convicted of human rights violations in his own country.

The verdict was not a surprise. An air of culpability had surrounded Fujimori in the final sessions of the trial. Gone was the indignant "¡Soy inocente!" of the trial's opening day - a phrase that became an instant viral ring-tone, percolating throughout Latin America. The denials were still intact, but the tone had changed. I was just defending my country from terrorists: History will judge me as one who saved his nation.

Somehow this all sounds very familiar. From Dick Cheney's rhetorical stabs at President Obama's stance on interrogation to Douglas Feith's sniveling criticism of a criminal complaint filed in the Spanish National Court against him and other Bush-era officials, the 'counterterrorism defense' is all the rage. But what government officials like Feith, Cheney, and Fujimori are asking for is a very dangerous thing. It's impunity: the status of being above the law and immune from accountability.

History shows that impunity can be a far more insidious threat to a democracy than the dramatic shock of terrorism. The case of Peru is a prime example. Fujimori rose to power in 1990 on a promise of saving the country from economic crisis and political conflict. During his campaign, he was an almost comical, populist candidate who tooled around the streets of Lima on his bicycle, reveling to cries of "El Chino". Once in power, he proved German political theorist Karl Schmitt's dictum, "Sovereign is he who decides the exception." [PDF, international relations flow chart]

Along with his spy chief - an alleged CIA asset with the Dracula-esque name Vladimir Montesinos - Fujimori created a parallel government with two objectives: to subvert the political opposition, via a blend of bribery and surveillance, and to destroy the Shining Path, by terrorizing its alleged base of supporters among the rural and urban poor. What followed for the next decade were two streams of crime whose waters converged.

Death squads carried out forced disappearances and massacres; intelligence agents wire-tapped telephones and set up covert cameras in the offices of activists, jurists, and elected officials. Human rights violations and corruption fed each other. Funds were required for black-ops and pay-offs. Laws needed to be overturned or eviscerated by interpretation. In 1992, Fujimori adopted a simpler measure: the self-coup. Ordering the army to close Congress and the Constitutional Court, Fujimori assumed dictatorial power. A semblance of democracy was eventually restored, but only once an amnesty law and a new, favorable Constitution had been drafted.

And so, the whole edifice of a Constitutional democracy was dragged down in the name of national defense. Once the contours of the parallel government were exposed, Peru dealt with the intellectual authors of this massive crime the way any legitimate democracy should: in its courts.

Today's sentence against Fujimori is a victory against impunity, and a repudiation of the notion that government leaders are bound by no limits when it comes to national security. But even victories in the courts can be undone: Fujimori's daughter Keiko - who earned an MBA at Colombia University - is a likely frontrunner in the 2011 elections. She has already promised to pardon her father if elected.

From a North American vantage point, we can only hope that the impact of the Fujimori trial will cascade throughout the Americas, from Central America - where the fledgling justice systems of countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are beginning to reckon with a legacy of human rights abuse - to the United States, where all eyes are watching the White House, Congress and the Justice Department, waiting for the investigations to begin on the crimes of our own war on terrorism.