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Peru braces for protests after former President Fujimori's release from prison

Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori sits between his children Kenji (left) and Keiko upon his release from the Barbadillo prison in the eastern outskirts of Lima, on Wednesday.
Renato Pajuelo
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AFP via Getty Images
Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori sits between his children Kenji (left) and Keiko upon his release from the Barbadillo prison in the eastern outskirts of Lima, on Wednesday.

LIMA, Peru — Peru was readying itself on Thursday for three days of protests against the abrupt freeing of former strongman leader Alberto Fujimori from prison, where he had been serving a 25-year sentence for orchestrating the massacre of 25 suspected subversives during his 1990-2000 presidency.

Fujimori, 85, walked free from the Lima jail on Wednesday evening after a controversial decision by the constitutional court to reinstate a 2017 pardon on humanitarian grounds for the former autocrat.

Looking frail but happy, Fujimori was using supplemental oxygen and wearing a surgical mask as he was embraced by his son Kenji, a former congressman, and daughter Keiko, a three-time presidential runner-up, in front of cheering crowds, before getting into an SUV.

His liberation, after serving approximately 16 years of his sentence, came despite warnings from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that Fujimori had not completed the requirements for such a pardon for a conviction for crimes against humanity. The conditions would include acknowledging guilt, undergoing independent medical tests and paying millions of dollars in compensation.

The ruling risks making Peru an international pariah and also undermines access to justice, including through the Inter-American system, which Peruvians frequently rely on given the failings of Peru's creaking and often corrupt legal system, warns Sonia Paredes, of Amnesty International Peru.

"This sentence is not about vengeance or retribution but about justice. What we are losing sight of here is the victims of human rights abuses," she says. "They should be first and foremost when pardons are considered and that has not happened here."

The pardon was initially authorized six years ago by then-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski as he sought to mollify a congress dominated by the Fujimorista party, Popular Force. But it was quickly overturned by the inter-American court and the political backlash within Peru was so strong that it led to Kuczynski's resignation under threat of impeachment.

But its reapproval now, in controversial circumstances, has caused widespread consternation in Peru.

Cardinal Pedro Barreto, the country's highest-ranking archbishop, described the pardon as a "slap in the face that hurts our soul." He added: "It's important to transmit calm while also expressing our indignation."

Fujimori remains a hero for many Peruvians on the right. His government oversaw the crushing of the Shining Path, a rebel group that's Latin America's only significant Maoist movement, whose bloodletting claimed roughly 30,000 lives, mainly of poor Peruvians living in remote Andean villages.

Demonstrators hold carnations and bear portraits of the victims of repression during the rule of Alberto Fujimori (1990-200), as they march in Lima against the presidential pardon he was granted on Jan. 30, 2018.
Cris Bouroncle / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators hold carnations and bear portraits of the victims of repression during the rule of Alberto Fujimori (1990-200), as they march in Lima against the presidential pardon he was granted on Jan. 30, 2018.

But billions of dollars vanished from public coffers on his watch and, in 1992, he trashed the constitution by abruptly shuttering congress and the courts.

He also faces several future trials and it is unclear how the pardon will affect them. One of those trials, for a massacre by a clandestine death squad in the coastal town of Pativilca, is due to start later this month.

Another is the case of forced sterilizations, in which thousands of mainly poor and Indigenous women were allegedly bullied and tricked into being sterilized against their wishes. Peruvian prosecutors have applied to the courts in Chile, from where Fujimori was extradited in 2007, for permission to try him for that case.

His pardon comes as the deeply unpopular conservative-dominated congress, with just 6% approval, has been accused of dismantling Peru's fragile democracy, including packing various institutions, such as the constitutional court, with unqualified candidates during rushed, opaque processes.

Two members of the constitutional court, who opposed the pardon, have said they were not notified of the ruling to free Fujimori. The court's chairman, Francisco Morales, claims that that would have been unnecessary as, given their stances on the matter, they would not have helped draft it.

It is also the latest human rights controversy to rock Peru as authorities slow-march investigations into security forces' killings of dozens of anti-government protesters in December 2022 and January 2023.

Many Peruvians view President Dina Boluarte as having blood on her hands. She has refused to resign and claims that Peru is "calm and at peace." But few citizens, just 8% of whom approve of her performance, agree.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Simeon Tegel