Pope Francis arrives in Peru on January 18, in the midst of the worst political crisis the country has seen since the return to democracy in 2000. The crisis is the direct result of the so-called “humanitarian” pardon granted to former dictator Alberto Fujimori by President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski on Christmas Eve.
The pardon came just three days after Kuczynski narrowly escaped impeachment proceedings with the support of Fujimori’s son and member of Congress Kenji Fujimori, giving rise to the widespread belief that Kuczynski had cut a political deal with Fujimori to save his presidency. The announcement of the pardon sparked national and international outrage and several days of street protests. On January 11, some 50,000 people marched through Lima in protest of the pardon, with another national protest scheduled for the end of January.
President Kuczynski and his ministers have portrayed the pardon both as a humanitarian gesture resulting from Fujimori’s deteriorating health, and as an essential step for moving Peru away from the divisions of the past and toward a new phase of reconciliation. Evidence quickly emerged that Fujimori does not appear to meet the conditions for a humanitarian pardon.
The families of the victims of human rights crimes committed during the Fujimori regime are seeking to revoke the pardon, which they see as an unethical political deal in violation of national and international law. There are three paths by which this could occur:
1) The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a regional court of the Organization of American States, will hear the case on February 2. The Court ruled previously on the Barrios Altos massacre and the La Cantuta disappearances, giving it the mandate to review possible violations of the terms of its sentences. Whatever the court rules is legally binding for the country.
2) In addition to the humanitarian pardon, President Kuczynski also granted Fujimori a derecho de gracia, which is a pardon for an ongoing case. Fujimori was charged in the Pativilca massacre case in July 2017. Constitutional experts say Fujimori does not meet the conditions stipulated in Peruvian law to be eligible for a pardon in this case.
3) The case could also come before Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal, which has in the past revoked humanitarian pardons that were found to be fraudulent.
Pope Francis has made reconciliation one of the hallmarks of his papacy. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is concerned that the government and other conservative groups may try to use the pope’s visit to legitimize a false discourse of national reconciliation. WOLA believes that reconciliation cannot be achieved based on denial of justice. Reconciliation implies integral reparations for the victims and their families: truth, including acknowledgment of the wrongs committed against the victims and their families; reparations, be these monetary or symbolic; and justice, meaning that those responsible for the crimes are held accountable.
Peru made important strides in its efforts to acknowledge the victims of the internal armed conflict through the work of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which found that 70,000 Peruvians had been killed between 1980 and 2000, half by the Maoist insurgent group Shining Path, and about 35 percent by the state, including security forces and irregular paramilitary groups. Peru has provided reparations to victims of the different armed actors of the conflict and has sought to bring those responsible for the most heinous crimes to justice. The extradition, prosecution, and conviction of former president Alberto Fujimori was critical to this process.
After fleeing Peru in 2000 and living as a fugitive for several years, Fujimori was extradited from Chile in 2007 and put on trial for grave violations of human rights. He later faced additional charges for corruption and abuse of authority. In April 2009, after a lengthy trial, the court found Fujimori guilty as charged for kidnapping and murder, which the court determined were crimes against humanity under international law. Specifically, the court found that Fujimori was responsible for the creation and operation of a military death squad known as the Colina Group, and convicted him as the indirect perpetrator of the 1991 massacre of 15 people in Barrios Altos, the 1992 disappearance and murder of nine students and a professor from La Cantuta University, and the 1992 kidnappings of journalist Gustavo Gorriti and businessman Samuel Dyer.
WOLA and other international organizations were on the ground closely monitoring the Fujimori trial process, and we all agreed that the court that prosecuted Fujimori was independent, impartial, and fully guaranteed the due process rights of the accused. Fujimori and his defense lawyers had every opportunity to make their arguments heard in court, present witnesses and other forms of evidence, and cross-examine witnesses presented by the plaintiffs. As the first instance in which a democratically-elected head of state was convicted of grave human rights violations in his own country, the Fujimori trial and conviction were hailed around the world as a historic and important victory for global justice.
Criminal trials are a social and legal mechanism of repair for victims of grave human rights abuses. There are other forms of reconciliation that are not legal, including acknowledgement of responsibility. It should be noted that Fujimori has never acknowledged his responsibility in the crimes of Barrios Altos or La Cantuta. He has never apologized to the families of the victims. In the case of La Cantuta, the remains of five of the students are still unknown; their family members have not been able to give their loved ones a proper burial. Nor has Fujimori paid the reparations to the victims’ families as ordered by a court of law in the 2009 sentence.
It is likely that the Peruvian government is hoping that Pope Francis’ visit will provide them an opportunity to justify the decision to pardon Fujimori using the language of reconciliation. The pope has long championed reconciliation and the importance of peacebuilding, but he has also asserted the centrality of justice and the respect for human rights to achieving these objectives. During a November 2017 visit to Myanmar, he stated: “The arduous process of peace-building and national reconciliation can only advance through a commitment to justice and respect for human rights.” In September 2014, he told the president of Albania, “Let no one consider themselves the armor of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression.”
As the first Latin American pope, and one who has pushed for the pursuit of truth and justice in his native Argentina and in Uruguay, Pope Francis’s visit is an opportunity to shed further light on the misguided and false justifications for the Fujimori pardon. While in Chile, the pope will meet with victims of the Pinochet regime. Family members of the victims of Fujimori have also requested a meeting with Pope Francis. They have not received a response yet, but it is our sincere hope that he will grant them a meeting. A message by Pope Francis reaffirming his previous statements about the centrality of justice for reconciliation would be welcomed by many in Peru.