The man who energetically led Peru back from the brink of economic collapse and crushed a fanatical Maoist insurgency during his 1990s presidency is now a much diminished figure. The once-leonine Alberto Fujimori shuffles wearily in and out of a courtroom, awaiting what most Peruvians believe will be his conviction on murder and kidnapping charges.
After hearing from 80 witnesses and 20 outside experts in his 15-month trial, a three-judge panel is nearing a verdict in the case, an example of strengthening judicial authority in a region where democratic rule has a precarious tradition.
The 70-year-old former strongman remains remarkably popular, but Fujimori is also ailing, visibly downtrodden and discredited. Two-thirds of Peruvians polled recently approve of his rule, but 71 percent also think he'll be found guilty.
Fujimori is believed to be the world's first democratically elected former president to be tried for human rights violations in his own country, something Chile never managed to do with dictator Augusto Pinochet, who avoided trial for health reasons until his death at 91. Other countries — Serbia and Liberia among them — turned over former leaders to international war crimes tribunals.
Fujimori gets a final chance this week to explain why he shouldn't be held responsible for two military death squad killings: A raid on a barbecue party where 15 people mistaken for Shining Path rebel sympathizers were slain, and a midnight roundup at La Cantuta university in which nine students and a professor were "disappeared."
Members of the Colina group, a special military unit prosecutors say committed some 50 killings in all, say they were only following orders as Peru fought a dirty war that claimed nearly 70,000 lives in the 1980s and 90s.
Fujimori also is charged with ordering the brief abductions of businessman Samuel Dyer and journalist Gustavo Gorriti, who was among his fiercest critics when he used troops to shut down Congress and the courts in 1992.
Not a single witness testified that Fujimori directed anyone to kill, torture or kidnap, though several of them had publicly made such accusations before the trial. Instead, the proscution's legal argument — one also used in trials of Argentina's military dictators, Nazi Germany's leaders and the late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic — is that Fujimori is guilty of failing to prevent heinous crimes committed in his government's name.
Fujimori declared his innocence in a nearly full-throated roar at the trial's outset, waving his fist in the air. But he has kept mostly quiet since then. He suffers from hypertension and chronic gastritis, had a cancerous growth removed from his tongue, and could suffer a deadly blood clot from poor circulation, doctors say. He spends his days confined to a small apartment-like cell, painting landscapes.
A mathematics professor and son of Japanese immigrants whom many Peruvians still affectionately call "El Chino," Fujimori inherited double-digit inflation and car bombings in the capital when he took office in 1990 after the first, disastrous term of Peru's current president, Alan Garcia.
Fujimori parried both threats, revived foreign investment and built schools, roads and aqueducts across Peru.
"Whatever his transgressions, Fujimori is still remembered for his undeniable achievements. He inherited chaos and delivered economic and political order to Peru, which is no mean feat," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, D.C.
But Fujimori's legacy was undone by scandal when videotapes showing his intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos bribing lawmakers and businessmen. He fled into Japanese exile, then returned five years later via Chile, which eventually extradited him to stand trial.
Peruvian prosecutors allege Fujimori and Montesinos, now serving a 20-year term for corruption and gunrunning to Colombian rebels, created an "apparatus of power" that fought terror with terror.
Prosecutors presented declassified cables showing Ambassador Anthony Quainton and other U.S. diplomats repeatedly questioned Fujimori and his aides about abuses, including the two death squad killings.
"Never was a decision made to halt the functioning of this death squad. On the contrary, legal measures were taken that instead gave it a better chance to continue operating," chief prosecutor Jose Palaez said.
Victims' relatives say Fujimori showed his complicity by granting amnesty to soldiers accused of human rights violations.
"If he didn't have anything to do with it then he would have ordered it investigated," said Carmen Marino, 34, during a march by some 1,500 people this month demanding Fujimori's conviction. Her big brother Juan was an electronics student and karate enthusiast who was hauled away from La Cantuta by Colina members. His body was never found.
Prosecutors want a 30-year sentence, and hope to convict him of corruption in two more trials once this one is over.
Fujimori's adherents, led by his 33-year-old daughter Keiko, say a conviction will only help their cause.
"An unjust sentence will take us straight to the Government Palace in 2011," said Carlos Raffo, one of 13 Fujimoristas among Congress's 120 members.
Keiko hasn't formally announced a run for president, but was tied with Lima's mayor as a front-runner in a recent poll, and says she would pardon her father if she wins. Fujimori's popularity has soared since just 31.5 percent of Peruvians approved of his government in 2002, when he was living in Japan. The latest polls surveyed about 600 people face-to-face and had a 4 percent error margin.
If Fujimori is convicted and appeals to the Supreme Court, his fate "will be very much determined by political circumstances," predicts political analyst Nelson Manrique.
President Garcia, who can pardon Fujimori, is grappling with a corruption scandal of his own involving alleged kickbacks to senior officials for oil-drilling licenses, and since his APRA party lacks a majority in Congress, he often relies on Fujimoristas for support.
Garcia also has his own history with the Shining Path.
"There were certainly gross and massive violations of human rights committed in Peru when Garcia was president in the 1980s," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch-Americas. "It's hard to believe (they) could be committed without the knowledge of the president."
Garcia denies any responsibility for rights abuses committed during his first term, including the 1986 killings of some 250 inmates, many after they surrendered, in a military siege at two Lima prisons. A government-appointed truth commission that investigated Peru's 1980-2000 dirty war held Garcia politically — but not criminally — responsible for military abuses.
In part because of Garcia's potential exposure to similar charges, Fujimori will likely win out in the end, predicts Salomon Lerner, the former Catholic University rector who presided over the truth commission. Even with a conviction, he thinks "El Chino" will get help from the Supreme Court and Garcia, and eventually go out campaigning for Keiko.