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Fujimori, loved and hated by fellow Peruvians, is quietly turning 80

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Lima (AFP)

Peruvian ex-president Alberto Fujimori turns 80 on Saturday -- his first birthday in 12 years out of prison -- with his children, and the nation, sharply divided over his political legacy.

"Let history judge my successes and my errors," Fujimori wrote in a message sent to AFP ahead of his birthday. He said he was comforted by the conviction that he had laid a solid foundation for a country that would "finally reach its destiny, which is to be a leader in Latin America."

His birthday, which he said would be austerely celebrated, will find him living alone in a rented house in Lima. He has been working on a memoir about his decade in power (1990-2000), a period marked by corruption but also by a fight against guerrillas and terrorism.

"I have reached 80 bearing the marks of the years, with all the shocks of political life, the enormous satisfactions and the profound regrets," he wrote.

Since gaining his freedom seven months ago after a pardon by then-president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Fujimori, an engineer and mathematician by training, has retired to write, to tend to his garden -- a special passion -- and to spend time with his four children and two granddaughters.

"In the few years I have left," Fujimori explained in his handwritten text, "I will dedicate myself to three objectives: bringing my family together, improving my health to the extent possible, and striking a serene and balanced equilibrium in my life."

The few photos he or his family have posted on social networks show a tired and fragile-looking Fujimori, possibly depressed -- far from the image of the powerful autocrat he projected while ruling Peru with an iron hand. He does not socialize.

Fujimori's memoirs, which he began writing out by hand in his Lima jail while serving part of a 25-year sentence for graft and crimes against humanity, will be published this year by the Planeta publishing house, his family said.

The charge of crimes against humanity stemmed in part from the killings or disappearances of scores of civilians -- allegedly by a shadowy squad of military officers -- during Peru's bloody struggle against Maoist rebels.

- Hero and villain -

The son of Japanese immigrants, Fujimori was born 80 years ago in Lima on July 28, the day Peruvians celebrate their independence in 1821 from Spain.

How can one man be both so loved and hated by his countrymen?

"Taking a long-term view, it seems he is one of the most influential presidents of the 20th century -- not one of the best but one who left the biggest mark," journalist Luis Jochamowitz writes in "Citizen Fujimori," an unauthorized biography.

"Unlike other successful politicians, Fujimori actually has something to show: having solved problems dealing with terrorism and the economy," sociologist and political analyst Carlos Melendez told AFP.

Fujimori's admirers revere him as the man who laid the foundations of modern Peru. He managed to extricate the economy from the deep hole it had fallen into in the 1980s -- with annual hyperinflation of 7,600 percent -- leaving it with one of the most open and solid economies in Latin America.

He is also recognized for defeating the maoist Shining Path guerrillas, and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), although human rights groups sharply denounced the killings of innocent civilians during the bloody struggle against the rebels.

In 1992, in what was called a "self-coup," Fujimori -- frustrated by the opposition party's control of the legislature -- shut down Congress, purged the judiciary, imposed censorship and suspended the constitution. The move drew international condemnation but widespread popular support in Peru.

Fujimori was the first "outsider" to rise to a leadership position in modern Latin America. He emerged from anonymity -- as an obscure university professor -- to defeat the favored candidate, writer Mario Vargas Llosa, in the 1990 presidential election.

"He is a populist and a pragmatist," Melendez said.

- 'Retired from politics' -

Fujimori's release from jail "has been the opposite of what we feared," Jochamowitz said about the former leader's surprisingly low profile of recent months. Rather than using his freedom to wade back into the thick of Peruvian politics, "it is perceived that he has lost influence."

As Fujimori told a TV channel in April, "I have already retired from politics."

So far, he has been unable to reconcile his daughter Keiko (43), who heads the rightist Popular Force party, with her brother Kenji (39), who leads a rival faction of the party, to end a schism in Fuji-world that could see the two butting heads in the 2021 presidential elections.

For Melendez, "one of Fujimori's errors was to believe that the end justifies the means, which led to violations of human rights and abuses of power."

One episode that initially brought Fujimori political gain, cementing a reputation as a tough and forceful leader, was the violent denouement of a hostage crisis at the Japanese Embassy in 1997, when a military commando raid ended a four-month-long occupation by killing 14 MRTA rebels.

But Fujimori's star faded quickly in 2000, dragged down by a corruption scandal after the release of videos of his right-hand man and intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, which allegedly showed him bribing election officials.

Fujimori, who was in Tokyo after attending an APEC summit in Brunei, submitted his resignation by fax to the speaker of the Congress.

In 2005, he arrived in Chile. He was eventually extradited to Peru, where, until seven months ago, he sat in a Lima prison.

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