Peru’s president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has pardoned the jailed former autocrat Alberto Fujimori in a Christmas Eve announcement that has sparked protests across the country.
The president, who last week survived a vote to force him out of office, said in a statement on Sunday night that he had “decided to concede a humanitarian pardon to Mr Alberto Fujimori”.
“A medical panel has determined Mr Fujimori has a progressive, degenerative and incurable disease and the jail conditions present a grave risk to his life and health,” it read.
The move comes a day after Fujimori, 79, who is serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and human rights crimes, was rushed to hospital on Saturday after suffering a severe drop in blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythm. His doctor said he could die.
Alberto Fujimori, who governed Peru from 1990 to 2000, is the figurehead of the party which dominates Peru’s Congress and a deeply divisive figure in the country. He was jailed in 2009 for authorising death squads, overseeing rampant corruption and vote-rigging.
The writing was on the wall when Kuczysnki was saved from impeachment late on Thursday night by Fujimori’s son Kenji, a congressman who led a rebel faction of the majority Fuerza Popular opposition party – led by his older sister Keiko – in voting against ousting him from office for lying about links to the Brazilian firm Odebrecht, which is at the centre of Latin America’s biggest corruption scandal.
Kenji Fujimori thanked Kuczynski in a tweet for his “noble and magnanimous gesture” on behalf of the Fujimori family, adding “we are eternally grateful to you”.
“It’s a night of joy and happiness,” said Keiko Fujimori, speaking outside the hospital where he father was being treated. “It’s been more than 10 years of waiting with my father without liberty. Finally justice has done.”
Not so for Gisela Ortiz, the sister of one of the victims of a 1992 death squad massacre for which Fujimori was convicted, who said Kuczynski had robbed them of “tranquility and right to justice when handing out this undeserved pardon to Fujimori”.
“We haven’t had Christmas for 25 years, just painful absences. Carry that with you today,” she tweeted.
Pedro Cateriano, a former prime minister, called it an “act of treason to democracy and human rights”, adding “the pardon of the dictator is not a humanitarian act, it has been a infamous political pact”.
The news provoked mixed reactions on the night when Peruvians celebrate Christmas. Angry protesters gathered in Lima’s Plaza San Martín, the place where marches traditionally begin, while TV images showed Fujimori’s supporters cheering the decision outside the hospital where he was rushed on Saturday night.
Reacting to the news, Jo-Marie Burt, senior fellow with the Washington Office on Latin America, said Kuczynski, popularly known as PPK, had “bartered his political survival for the dictator’s freedom”.
“PPK has long intimated that he would pardon Fujimori. But to do it in this way – after just barely surviving impeachment, on Christmas Eve – is an incredible show of disrespect to the victims of Fujimorismo,” she told the Guardian.
“This is going to be explosive.”
At least two lawmakers from PPK’s party have resigned in protest. Ministerial resignations are expected.
The 79-year-old former strongman leader looms large over present-day Peru. The hard-right populist political movement he began in the 1990s continues under the leadership of his daughter Keiko Fujimori who commands an absolute majority in Peru’s legislature despite an apparent split with her younger brother Kenji. She has twice narrowly lost presidential elections in 2011 and 2016, the second time by the narrowest of margins to Kuczynski.
Kuczynski’s decision is even more controversial because he owes his victory in 2016 to support from anti-Fujimori campaigners in the election runoff. Verónika Mendoza, a leftist candidate who came third in the race, called on her supporters to vote for PPK in order to stave off the possible return for the Fujimori dynasty. She did so while decrying the former Wall Street banker as a lobbyist but the lesser of two evils.
But Kuczynski has been publicly mulling the idea for much of the year. The former World Bank official, who is the same age as Fujimori, insisted he cannot allow him to die in prison. “A reprieve is something humanitarian. It is not a pardon,” he has said.
Peruvians remain bitterly divided over Fujimori’s legacy. His supporters credit him with laying the foundations of the country’s robust, investor-friendly economy after it was sunk by massive hyperinflation. His supporters say he pacified the country, defeating the brutal Maoist Shining Path movement.
He remained popular even when he dissolved Congress in April 1992 and in spite of his government’s violent repression.
But Peruvians eventually tired of the regime’s rampant corruption, and after a rigged election in 2000, Fujimori fled to Japan. In 2005 he visited Chile from where he was extradited in 2007 to face trial. According to late historian Alfonso Quiroz, the Fujimori regime was likely the most corrupt in Peruvian history, with .5bn to bn lost due to corruption. Transparency International ranked him number seven in a top 10 of the most corrupt leaders in the world, estimating he had stolen some 0m.
Steven Levitsky, a political scientist at Harvard University, said the release of the former leader would stir up a power struggle between his youngest son and daughter Keiko.
“Nobody outside of the Fujimori family knows this for sure. I don’t think Keiko wants her father out of prison. I think Kenji does. I think PPK has considered using the pardon to divide Fujimorismo and make a pact with Kenji,” he told the Guardian.
“If Keiko has total control of the party, she is the next candidate and quite possibly the next president if things stay the way they are. With Alberto out of prison it’s a different game.”
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