LIMA, Peru - When former President Alberto Fujimori goes on trial today on charges of murder and kidnapping in his war against a brutal Maoist insurgency, it will be an uncomfortable moment of truth for many Peruvians.
The harsh tactics his government used to defeat the Shining Path guerrillas in the 1990s won Fujimori tremendous backing at the time. Now many Peruvians believe it's unfair to treat him as a criminal, while others are trying to reconcile their admiration for him with the long list of human-rights abuses he is accused of.
"The trial is generating complex, ambivalent responses, and many people, moreover, are not saying aloud what they are thinking," Jorge Bruce, a prominent psychoanalyst and commentator, said in an interview.
"Many people feel guilty about supporting him because on the one hand, the evidence of the corruption in Fujimori's government is overwhelming. But there exists this authoritarian tradition, and people say, 'If everyone steals, why should Fujimori be any different? At least he freed us from terrorists.' That's the mood in much of the country."
The result: Seven years after he fled his country in disgrace, Fujimori is now more popular than the current president, according to an opinion poll.
Fujimori's 10-year autocratic regime collapsed in 2000 in a corruption scandal involving his closest aide, spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos. Fujimori fled into exile to Japan, his ancestral homeland, then moved to Chile expecting to be extradited to Peru, where he believed he could return to politics.
He indeed was extradited in September, but instead of a political rebirth he faces multiple trials on charges including human-rights violations, abuse of authority, and corruption.
Prominent in the case against him are the 1992 death-squad slayings of nine students and a professor at La Cantuta University and the 1991 killings of 15 people in a tenement in Lima's Barrios Altos neighborhood. If convicted of authorizing the killings, Fujimori faces up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $33 million. Fujimori, 69, denies any involvement.
Human-rights groups argue that Fujimori must be tried and sentenced for his abuses to send the message that authoritarian leaders will be held accountable for their actions when their countries become democratic.