News item: Alberto Fujimori, former president of Peru, was sentenced last month to 25 years in prison by a Peruvian court for connections to death squads.
In my humble but loud opinion, hurrah! World media headlined it “a victory for the rule of law.” It was the first time an elected world leader in exile had been extradited back to his home country, tried, and found guilty of human-rights abuses. Take that, Pinochet, Amin and Milosevic.
That’s the only positive precedent set by an outlaw president who made a career of putting himself above the law. Lest we forget, Fujimori spoiled things for a lot of people, exploiting his Japanese roots in a ruthless pursuit of power.
Recap: Fujimori was elected in 1990 as South America’s first leader descended from Japanese immigrants. As the Japanese government likes to claim anyone with the correct blood as one of its own (recall 2008’s emigre Nobel Prize winners), out came the predictable cheers and massive investment.
Giving credit where credit’s due, Fujimori’s much-ballyhooed successes included economic development, antiterrorism programs, and a famous hostage situation at the Japanese ambassador’s residence (which ended with every insurgent executed). But Fujimori’s excesses eventually caught up with him. His corrupt administration (right-hand man Vladimiro Montesinos is serving 20 years for bribery) skimmed at least $1 billion of public money. He also suspended Parliament, purged the judiciary, and amended the constitution, allowing him to claim a hitherto illegal third term after rigged elections in 2000.
Four months later Fujimori bailed out. On the pretext of visiting an international conference in Brunei, he surfaced in Japan, faxed a letter of resignation from his Tokyo hotel room, and claimed he was a Japanese.
Legal contortionism ensued. Although Japan does not recognize dual nationality and spends at least a year deliberating bona fide naturalization applications, our government decided within three weeks to issue him a passport. Reasoning: Fujimori’s parents had registered his Peruvian birth with the Japanese Embassy. Since he hadn’t personally renounced his Japanese citizenship, he was to our justice minister still a Japanese citizen, and therefore immune from Peru’s demands for extradition.
For the next five years, despite Interpol arrest warrants for murder, kidnapping and crimes against humanity, Fujimori lived a comfortable exile in multiple residences within Japan’s elite society. Supported by the likes of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, Fujimori was for a time the toast of Tokyo, charming all manner of nationalistic authors, rightwing politicians, diplomats and journalists with his celebrity. Meanwhile he plotted his political comeback through the Internet. “I live as if I were in Peru,” he told the New York Times in 2004.
You can’t keep a bad man down. In 2005 he renewed his Peruvian passport, formally declared his candidacy for Peru’s 2006 presidential election, and abandoned his safe haven for a chartered flight to Chile. Chilean authorities immediately put the fool under arrest.
Then it got comical. Fujimori was trounced in Peru’s presidential election, so he ran in absentia in 2007 for the Japanese Diet (under the Kokumin Shinto Party). He was trounced here too. Chile then extradited him to Peru for trial. In 2007 he got six years for abuses of power. Last month he got an additional quarter-century for murder, bodily harm, and kidnapping — and there are still more trials outstanding.
That should put him out of harm’s way. Now 70, Fujimori will be three digits old before he sees turnkeys, unless his daughter — chip off the old block — carries out her platform plank to become president and pardon him. Fujimori is a political vampire who makes one wish wooden stakes were part of the political process.
But seriously, consider the precedents set by this megalomaniac:
First, Fujimori rent asunder Japan’s due process for both naturalization and asylum-seekers (while dozens of North Korean children of Japanese mothers who have clear blood ties remain stateless). He made it clear that Japanese elites arbitrarily enforce our laws to benefit their own.
Now contrast him with fellow nikkei in Japan. It’s obviously OK for an overseas citizen with Japanese blood to assume dictatorial powers, pillage the public purse, then slither off to Japan. But how about the thousands of nikkei Peruvian workers in Japan who are now being told — even bribed — to go home?
Then contrast him with fellow nikkei overseas. If any nikkei despot can parachute into Japan and be granted asylum through mere tribalism, what country would want to elect another Fujimori as head of state? Although wrong-headed and racist, this precedent hurts future prospects for nikkei assimilation.
But sociopaths like Fujimori are by definition incurious about how they affect others, especially when granted power in young, weak constitutional democracies. At least Peru and Chile had the sense (and the chance) to lock him up and re-establish the rule of law.
No thanks to Japan, of course, from whom the world expects more maturity. Rumor has it the International Olympic Committee has been nudged by rival candidate cities about Ishihara and Fujimori. If this knocks Tokyo out of contention for the 2016 Olympics, more hurrahs for poetic justice.
In sum, Fujimori is a classic case of how power corrupts. A former math teacher comes to power, comes to believe that he can do anything, then comes to a dazzlingly rich society run by elites who shelter him and further encourage his excesses.
A pundit friend said it well: “Fujimori is an accident of birth. If he had been born in North America, he’d have been a dentist, not a dictator.”
At least this time, this kind of “accident” has not gone unpunished.
Debito Arudou is coauthor of the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants.” Just Be Cause appears on the first Tuesday (Wednesday in some areas) Community Page of the month. Send comments to email@example.com