Commentary: Fujimori's conviction should give Bush nightmares

There was a truly remarkable news item recently that received less notice than it deserved. A former president was tried, convicted and sentenced to a long jail term for crimes committed in his government's fight against terrorism.

No, this was not George W. Bush's worst nightmare come true. The story came from Peru where Alberto Fujimori was found to be responsible for the killing of a number of innocent civilians by government death squads. The conviction of Fujimori, who had been president from 1990 to 2000, was a rare triumph of justice over the impunity of power and was the first time in Latin America that an ex-president had been called to account in such a manner.

This happened even though Fujimori had a number of accomplishments to his credit as president. He brought Peru's rampant terrorism under control, reformed its economy and signed a peace treaty with Ecuador ending a long-standing border dispute. Had he stepped down in 2000 with that as his record, he probably would have never been brought to trial. Instead he attempted to perpetuate himself in power by rigging his second reelection. He no doubt thought that, in office, the judicial system was too weak to try him and that, out of office, it would be used against him.

The charges against him were not new, but they did not move forward until he had been so thoroughly discredited that he was forced to resign from office and flee the country. He initially went into exile in Japan, but he then made the mistake of going to Chile – a country willing to extradite him.

The official U.S. Government reaction to the outcome of the trial was "This verdict is a powerful statement against impunity, and underscores the importance of the rule of law as a foundation of democratic government." This press guidance was never used, however, as no journalist bothered to ask the State Department. Perhaps no one wanted to embarrass Washington since there is no small irony in all this.

With new revelations every day, there can be no doubt the Bush administration used torture and committed other illegal acts during its so-called war on terror. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the State Department lawyer responsible for detainee cases, the top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring detainees at Guantanamo to trial have all concluded that acts of torture were committed.

Vice President Cheney once said using water boarding in interrogating terrorists was a "no-brainer." So is the fact that it is torture.

The United States, when it ratified the Convention Against Torture, obligated itself to extradite or prosecute those who torture, or are complicit in its use. Nevertheless the American judicial system, the Obama administration and Congress have all done nothing. Attorney General Holder, when asked about the advisability of a truth commission to investigate America's use of torture, dodged the question and passed the buck to Senator Patrick Leahy, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Leahy has proposed such a commission, but insisted on at least some Republican support. He has all but given up the effort since no one in the minority party is willing to put principle above partisanship even though immunity would be given to those that testify.

As for public opinion, there has been little notice let alone outrage. Perhaps Americans are too busy complaining about how high their taxes are to contemplate their complicity in crimes committed in their name.

Meanwhile charges against a number of former Bush administration officials for these crimes are being considered in Italy, Spain and Great Britain. A Spanish judge has proposed indicting six administration lawyers who provided the legal framework for torture. They defined torture as only something that causes a major organ to fail. They also defined the law as whatever the boss wanted to hear.

Thus far Bush's nightmare has not come true and he can continue to sleep soundly. He, and the yes men he surrounded himself with, may have to be careful about where they travel overseas in the future however.

And as for the rule of law – it is alive and well – in Peru.


Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs. His most recent book is "Why American Foreign Policy Fails: Unsafe at Home and Despised Abroad."

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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