By Mitra Taj and Mariana Bazo
LIMA (Reuters) – Peru’s President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski defended his pardon for Alberto Fujimori on Monday as justified clemency for an ailing man whose authoritarian government in the 1990s helped the country progress, after Peruvians protested for a second day.
Addressing Peruvians for the first time since pardoning Fujimori on Christmas Eve, Kuczynski appealed to Peruvians protesting his decision to “turn the page” and accept it.
The pardon has pitched Kuczynski’s center-right government into a fresh political crisis less than a week after Congress nearly removed him from office in the wake of a graft scandal.
Earlier on Monday, police fired tear gas to disperse crowds in downtown Lima in a second day of unrest, while a third lawmaker announced he was abandoning Kuczynski’s political party.
Fujimori, who like Kuczynski is 79, is a deeply divisive figure in Peru. While many consider him a corrupt dictator, others credit him with ending a severe economic crisis and quashing a leftist rebellion during his decade in power.
The pardon cleared Fujimori of convictions for graft and human rights crimes, 12 years into a 25-year prison sentence.
Kuczynski, a former Wall Street banker, reiterated that the pardon was a response to fears that Fujimori might die in prison. But – for the first time since running for office a year ago – he also defended Fujimori’s decade in power.
“It’s clear his government, which inherited a country submerged in a violent and chaotic crisis at the start of the 1990s, incurred in significant legal transgressions regarding democracy and human rights. But I also think his government contributed to national progress,” Kuczynski said in a televised address.
The remarks placed Kuczynski more firmly on Fujimori’s side of Peru’s biggest political faultline, and triggered a fresh wave of criticism of Kuczynski from Fujimori’s foes.
“You’ve got to be pretty stingy, President Kuczynski, to not say a word of solidarity for the victims and their loved ones,” Gisela Ortiz, a Peruvian human rights activist, said on Twitter after his speech.
Just a week ago, Kuczynski fanned fears of a new rise of Fujimori’s rightwing movement, denouncing its bid to remove him from office as a legislative “coup” attempt that threatened Peru’s democracy.
Many of Fujimori’s detractors, who helped Kuczynski win last year’s runoff election, joined Kuczynski in calling for lawmakers to defeat the “presidential vacancy” motion.
But it was a rebel faction among Fujimori’s supporters in Congress which unexpectedly saved Kuczynski from the vote, fueling speculation that it was part of a deal to trade votes for a pardon for Fujimori.
“The pardon’s for President Kuczynski, it’s not for Fujimori,” leftist lawmaker Marisa Glave said on local TV channel Canal N.
The lawyer who defended Kuczynski before Congress last week, Alberto Borea, said he was opposed to the pardon and did not know it was in the works.
Chanting “traitor” and “the pardon has got to go,” many Peruvians marching on Monday called for Kucyznski to resign and new elections to be held.
So far, three ruling party lawmakers have announced their resignations from Kuczynski’s party, which controls about a fifth of congressional seats. The deputy human rights minister has also resigned, a government source said.
Fujimori remained at a hospital in Lima, where he was taken from prison late on Sunday to treat a drop in his blood pressure and an abnormal heart beat, according to his doctor.
(Reporting by Mariana Bazo and Reuters TV, additional Reporting and writing by Mitra Taj; Editing by Susan Thomas and Nick Macfie)