Septiembre 22, 2006

Peru's Former Spymaster Faces Verdict

September 21,2006 | CALLAO, Peru -- Former Peruvian spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos went to court Thursday to hear the verdict on charges he masterminded a deal seven years ago that parachute-dropped 10,000 assault rifles to leftist Colombian guerrillas.

Montesinos, 61, is already serving a 15-year term on about a dozen corruption convictions, which under Peruvian law are served concurrently. If convicted, he faces his harshest sentence yet. Prosecutors are seeking a 20-year sentence and a fine of $3 million to be split by the governments of Peru and Colombia.

"This is one of the cases in which one of the toughest sentences could be handed to Montesinos," State Attorney Juan Carlos Portocarrero told The Associated Press before the court session began.

The ruling caps a nearly three-year trial that heard testimony resembling a spy novel. The plot includes a stealth Ukrainian flight crew, a French financier and a Lebanese arms dealer known as the "Merchant of Death."

Men allegedly working for Montesinos posed as Peruvian military representatives to purchase Soviet-era East German assault rifles from Jordan that were delivered in 1999 to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Montesinos has maintained he had nothing to do with the arms deal and that he was the one responsible for uncovering the scheme. But testimony from his co-defendants overwhelmingly points to him as the leader of the plot.

Montesinos appeared calm as he consulted with his attorney before taking a seat in the second of three rows occupied by 18 co-defendants.

A court clerk began reading the verdict shortly before 10 a.m. local time, but seven hours later, the pronouncement of guilt or innocence for Montesinos and his co-defendants had still not come. Under Peru's Napoleonic code system of justice, the culmination of a trial requires a detailed recitation of the facts of the entire case.

Portocarrero described the case as "emblematic" of the man who used his post as de facto head of Peru's National Intelligence Service to gain control of the military, the courts, and most media outlets.

"We are talking about a mega-network of corruption," Portocarrero said.

Montesinos' influence permeated a nation already weakened by chronic corruption -- until ex-President Alberto Fujimori's 10-year autocratic regime collapsed in November 2000 amid a bribery scandal involving his spymaster.

The arms scandal came to light three months earlier when Montesinos made a rare public appearance with Fujimori to announce that Peruvian authorities had broken a gunrunning ring led by brothers Jose Luis and Luis Frank Aybar, both Peruvian army veterans.

But their version quickly unraveled under skepticism from Colombian and Jordanian officials.

Montesinos fled Peru but was captured in Venezuela in June 2001. He has since been locked up in the high-security naval prison in Lima that he helped design for Peru's most notorious guerrilla leaders.

Fujimori, who was not charged in the arms trafficking case, also fled, first going to Tokyo, then to Chile, where he is still fighting extradition to his homeland.

Co-defendant Jose Luis Aybar testified he was tortured by Montesinos' intelligence agents, who warned him to take the blame for the arms deal or his family would face the consequences.

Prosecutors are seeking 15-year sentences for Aybar and his brother.

In 1998, the Aybars contacted Miami-based businessman Charles Acelor, a French-born naturalized U.S. citizen, in search of assault rifles. Acelor put them in touch with international weapons broker Sarkis Soghanalian, a Turkish-born Lebanese citizen and 23-year U.S. resident -- whose long career supplying arms to ex-dictators like Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza and Iraq's Saddam Hussein earned him the nickname "The Merchant of Death."

Soghanalian, one of 15 defendants tried in absentia in the case, has said he negotiated the deal with Montesinos for what he believed was a legal transaction -- a claim prosecutors reject.

Peru is trying to have Soghanalian extradited from the United States, Portocarrero said.

The weapons were reportedly bought in three lots and delivered on four flights between March and August of 1999 by a Ukrainian-registered military surplus cargo jet.

The original plan allegedly was to sell another 40,000 rifles to the rebels but Jordan canceled the deal when the CIA tipped it off in mid-1999 that the rifles were turning up in the hands of captured Colombian guerrillas.

Montesinos faces a possible 35-year sentence in another trial for allegedly directing a paramilitary death squad during the first half of Fujimori's regime. Other trials are ongoing or have yet to begin

By CARLA SALAZAR Associated Press Writer

Posted by marga at Septiembre 22, 2006 9:41 AM | TrackBack
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