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Peru's former spy chief goes on trial

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

LIMA, Peru -- Vladimiro Montesinos, the shadowy spymaster who was once Peru's most feared man, refused to testify at his first public trial for corruption Tuesday, but his former mistress had plenty to say.

When Jacqueline Beltran's time came to testify, she angrily denied she had ever asked Montesinos to intervene to help her brother get out of prison.

As Montesinos sat stone-faced, the attractive, 34-year-old Beltran challenged him to deny what she was saying: "Let him be a man and tell me I am lying. As authorities, you should make that man talk."

The charge Montesinos was facing Tuesday was for influence peddling, a minor offense among the dozens of charges before him that range from corruption to drug trafficking, arms dealing and directing a death squad.

His trial took place at a Lima prison guarded by hundreds of elite police commandos in camouflage combat uniforms and armed with automatic weapons.

"It is the beginning of the public trial of probably the most corrupt man in the history of Peru ... finally, after two years," said Ronald Gamarra, a special state attorney assigned to the Montesinos investigation.

Looking grayer than the last time he appeared in public six months ago, the balding, bespectacled 57-year-old Montesinos was escorted into the prison courtroom and sat down stiff-backed beside his former mistress without greeting her.

Montesinos is accused of using his reputed control of the judiciary during the past decade to get Beltran's brother out of prison. He could get five years if convicted. Beltran faces a four-year sentence.

Remained silent

Montesinos, dressed in a blue silk shirt and dark slacks, showed little emotion as he faced a three-judge panel and listened to the charges against him.

The former spy chief entered a written statement in which he exercised his right to remain silent and challenged the impartiality of the judges.

During the first hours of the trial, the judges heard arguments from Montesinos' lawyer that his legal rights had been violated.

Montesinos is accused of building a criminal empire involving generals, legislators, the media and judges while he served as the most trusted aide to former President Alberto Fujimori.

Investigators say he bilked Peru of hundreds of millions of dollars during Fujimori's decade-long regime.

Montesinos was captured 20 months ago in Venezuela.

The legal case against him is considered the most complicated in Peru's history because it encompasses more than a thousand people under investigation for their alleged roles in his web of corruption.

In Montesinos, Peru's notoriously inefficient and corrupt court system is confronting a wily lawyer with experience in manipulating the judiciary.

He has gone on a hunger strike, refused to testify as a witness in other cases and questioned the impartiality of judges, forcing a delay in his trials. Montesinos recently complained to prison psychologists that he was having thoughts of suicide.

Many in Peru believe Montesinos still wields influence over a judicial system he reputedly controlled with intimidation and bribes until Fujimori's regime collapsed in 2000. His corruption trial is viewed as a test of the independence of the courts.

"The judges are afraid of trying Montesinos," Gamarra told The Associated Press.

Legal analysts say some judges may fear Montesinos because he might have access to incriminating videotapes of them made by Montesinos' feared intelligence service. They say judges may also fear reprisals if Montesinos gets out of prison.

Most of the charges against Montesinos are for corruption and carry 8- to 10-year sentences. He is expected to be convicted because in many cases he documented the corruption in the hundreds of infamous "Vladi videos" he taped during his private dealings.

It is unclear how strong the evidence is in cases that involve more serious charges that carry much longer sentences, including murder and drug trafficking.

In December, a judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to try Montesinos on one count of drug trafficking.

Fujimori's regime unraveled in 2000 amid a scandal that erupted after a cable news channel aired a videotape of Montesinos bribing a congressman to join the president's legislative bloc.


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