Fujimori pardon: another blow to tackling impunity in Latin America?

Montevideo (AFP) –


Is frail health a get-out-of-jail card for Latin America's imprisoned dictators and autocrats?

Rights groups fear that the pardon granted to Peru's former president Alberto Fujimori is just the latest blow to combating impunity for ex-leaders guilty of crimes.

They point to a series of scenes -- Fujimori in a hospital bed, late former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in a wheelchair, former Guatemalan president Efrain Rios Montt immune from sentencing because of alleged dementia -- to underline their argument.

In Fujimori's case, a presidential pardon that freed him of a 25-year sentence for brutal human rights abuses triggered protests by thousands of angry Peruvians.

It also drew sharp criticism from the representative in Latin America of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amerigo Incalcaterra, who called for any situation "that could lead to impunity" to be avoided.

Fujimori, said to be ailing from high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat at age 79, admitted to having "let down" Peru's citizens and asked them "to forgive me with all my heart."

It was an oblique reference to crimes he was convicted of, which included the murder of 25 people by death squads he commanded during his 1990-2000 rule.

He made the comments in a video from a hospital bed, where he looked visibly weakened and surrounded by medical equipment.

- Age as 'mitigating' factor -

Seventeen years earlier, General Pinochet, 84 and retired, arrived in a wheelchair at the airport serving Chile's capital. He had just been freed on health grounds after being detained 503 days in London.

But, as soon as he descended from the plane, he got up and walked away, accompanied by his family. Opponents called it a deliberate provocation.

"Age is a factor that works as a mitigating circumstance," said Lissell Quiroz-Perez, a specialist in Latin America at Rouen University in France.

"These are old men," she said, and "they played it that way too: Fujimori is always seen in bed, Pinochet was the same, he always appeared very weak. That created a feeling of compassion in the population."

In Guatemala, Rios Montt, a former dictator today aged 91, is waiting to hear the verdict from his closed-door retrial started in October for a massacre by his security forces of 1,770 indigenous people who were accused of supporting leftwing guerrillas during his 1982-1983 reign.

But even if convicted, he will not go to prison. The court has been persuaded his mental state has deteriorated too far to countenance such punishment.

"He has very few moments of lucidity," his former lawyer Jaime Hernandez stated in October.

- 'Less impunity' than before -

"From a certain point of view, it's regrettable that those who violated human rights... might be protected by those same rights," said Patricio Navia, a Chilean sociologist and academic advisor for the CADAL Center for Openness and Development in Latin America.

"But such is democracy."

Navia rejected the term "impunity" for Fujimori, who had already spent 12 years in detention.

"Fujimori's case harks back to the past, but in a way that happens in a context of greater justice against those who violate human rights in Latin America," he said.

"There is a lot less impunity than before," he said. "Thirty years ago, no ex-president in Latin America would have gone to prison."

Now, several are behind bars, notably Otto Perez in Guatemala, pending trial for corruption; and Ollanta Humala in Peru, also on charges of graft.

Gaspard Estrada, director of the OPALC Political Observatory of Latin America and the Caribbean at Paris's Sciences Po institute, took a more nuanced view.

"Sure, Fujimori was convicted, and he served part of his sentence. But if we want to see impunity reduced and the rule of law progress, creating some exceptions can open the door to other exceptions," he said.

Fundamentally, there are "societies that are divided by their past, but that happens to all societies -- one can think of France, for example, with its war in Algeria."

"There are minority fringe groups that express sympathy with their torturers, while others, the majority, reject them."

That affirmation is supported by a recent poll that showed 12 percent of Chileans considered Pinochet "one of the best presidents the country ever had," despite his 1973-1990 regime being responsible for 3,200 murders or forced disappearances.