Does Fujimori Case Signal the End of Impunity?

After nearly two years under house arrest in Santiago, Chile, former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori settled into his new quarters last week—a comfortable if spartan suite of rooms at a police base in the eastern suburbs of Lima—where he will await his upcoming trials on charges of corruption and human-rights abuses. If convicted, Fujimori, 69, is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison. But Chile's decision to send Fujimori home has already sent ripples throughout the world of international criminal justice.

International-law experts and human-rights activists hailed the ruling of the Chilean justices as an important step toward making ex-dictators more accountable for their alleged atrocities. They say the precedent set by the five judges of the Chilean Supreme Court will make it easier for jurists in other countries to OK the extradition of ex-dictators facing criminal charges in their native lands. In fact, the Fujimori case is only the latest in a series of judicial proceedings involving tyrants and warlords that have made it increasingly difficult for them to elude prosecution.

The first breakthrough came in the 1990s when the United Nations Security Council set up special international courts to prosecute Yugoslav and Rwandan officials accused of gross human-rights abuses. Slobodan Milosevic died before The Hague tribunal could render its judgment. But a tribunal established in Tanzania sentenced former Rwandan prime minister Jean Kambanda to life imprisonment in 1998 for his role in the genocide carried out against that nation's ethnic Tutsi population—the first time a former chief of state had been held responsible for human-rights violations committed during his tenure.

The wiggle room narrowed further a few weeks later, when former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was placed under house arrest in England. While the attempt to prosecute him was ultimately blocked by then Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to send the retired general back home on medical grounds, a House of Lords ruling overturned the longstanding judicial practice of granting former chiefs of state immunity from detention in foreign nations for serious abuses perpetrated at home. Legal experts say the Fujimori case is going to make it harder still for onetime autocrats to escape with impunity. The Chilean court cited a 2001 decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights striking down a Peruvian law that granted amnesty to government officials implicated in human-rights violations.

There are still plenty of dictators and despots who remain on the lam—or in the lap of luxury—partly because politics often trumps legal precedent. Former Haitian military strongman Raoul Cédras lives quietly in Panama, having cut a deal with Clinton administration officials to relinquish power in 1994 in exchange for political asylum there. Jean-Claude Duvalier, the plump, spendthrift heir to Haiti's notorious tyrant François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, was allowed to settle in France after he was toppled from power in 1986. "Who gets political asylum and who gets fed to the wolves depends a lot on the services they've rendered to a major power, and especially to the United States," says DePaul University law professor M. Cherif Bassiouni.

But legal experts say the kinds of precedents set down in the Fujimori case will increase the pressure on countries to withdraw the welcome mat for ex-despots and bring them to justice. Increasingly, it seems, rogues can run, but they can no longer hide.