10/26/2012 12:31 pm ET

Fujimori's So-Called Apology and the Stakes for Transitional Justice

This week, Alberto Fujimori, the ex-president of Peru currently in prison for crimes against humanity, released a painting he made from jail to be circulated to the public. The image is a colorful self-portrait which shows him smiling and looking over his shoulder. Handwritten text on the side of the painting states: "I am sorry for what I did not do and how I could not help."

Fujimori was convicted in 2009 and given the highest possible sentence by the Peruvian Supreme Court of "25 years in prison for human rights violations, including the extrajudicial execution of 15 people, the enforced disappearance and murder of nine students and a teacher from La Cantuta University, and two abductions" (Human Rights Watch). Other crimes, including forced sterilizations of poor, indigenous women, are still being investigated. The trial and court-ruling mark a major turning point in both Peruvian history, and also in the field of international transitional justice. Not only was Fujimori confirmed as guilty, but also for the first time -- ever -- a former head of state was extradited to his own country and convicted.

The timing of Fujimori's benign and ambiguous public apology is not by chance.

It comes several days after his four children submitted official documentation to Peru's current President, Ollanta Humala, requesting a humanitarian and presidential pardon and for Fujimori to be released from prison. Raida Cóndor, the mother of one of the murdered students from La Cantuta University, is among the many who are publicly protesting the petition for Fujimori's pardon. The fact that Fujimori's only "apology" comes on the heels of his children's pardon request is both revealing and offensive. Raida Cóndor told news reporters this week that apologies should "come from the heart and not from political calculation."

While it is clear is that the mothers, grand-mothers, and other family members of the victims reject the pardon plea, the Peruvian media this week took a neutral position. Major news outlets circulated images of the Fujimori family submitting the paperwork for the plea, and photos of a sick and fragile Fujimori. While the ex-president may be disgraced, two of Fujimori's children are Peruvian congress members, and his daughter Keiko Fujimori narrowly lost her bid for the presidency in 2011. She ran on a far-right ticket, and on the idea that her father deserved to be released from prison. Keiko Fujimori is highly identifiable to Peruvians, with her bright orange campaign logo: "For a secure and modern Peru, with justice." Indeed, she is a familiar figure to news agencies and therefore she makes news, especially when carrying papers of her father.

Fujimori remains popular among certain groups in Peru. He is, of course, equally despised. For some, the presidency of Fujimori was a time of peace and development in the face of terrorism. But for many others, his presidency was characterized by massive corruption, grave violations of human rights, and authoritarian rule.

There is a tremendous amount at stake with this case, especially in the relatively new field of transitional justice - which refers to efforts of countries around the world to "redress the legacies of massive human rights abuses." How well does democracy work in a deeply polarized and politicized setting? How is justice served when there is no official public confession, but instead, radical and popular denial? Scholar Leigh Payne's seminal book on this topic Unsettling Accounts: Neither Truth nor Reconciliation in Confessions of State Violence, offers the argument that confessions by perpetrators have the ability to strengthen democracies because a shared -- even if contested -- knowledge of the past can help societies heal in the face of mass violence. In order for Fujimori's so-called apology to further the state of democracy in Peru, he must expand his vague statement into a genuine confession of wrong doing.

Interestingly, while the request for pardon is decried by human rights organizations and activists across Latin America, it has received very little attention elsewhere. But the world should be waiting and watching: how will President Humala respond? Will justice be served? What will happen if the pardon is granted? In order for Raida Cóndor and other victims' families to feel that justice is delivered, truth telling must replace denial.

This is the transitional part of transitional justice, and the public, the media outlets, the politicians, and Fujimori himself all have a role to play. Indeed, we all do.