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Peru’s Fujimori will leave prison to new political landscape

LIMA – When opposition leader Keiko Fujimori leaves prison, her supporters will applaud her freedom and her detractors will lament what they consider more impunity for the corrupt, but the reality is the future is far from clear for the woman who twice almost won Peru’s presidency.

The Constitutional Tribunal narrowly approved a habeas corpus request to free Fujimori from detention while she is investigated for alleged corruption. But the magistrates noted the 4-3 decision does not constitute a judgment on her guilt or innocence with regards to accusations she accepted money from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

The daughter of imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori — who herself was jailed in October 2018 — could be returned to a cell.

“Although the Constitutional Tribunal has freed her for a strictly procedural matter, it has not absolved her of any of the charges, and it also did not dismiss the new charges made by the Public Ministry,” political analyst Iván García Mayer said.

It is unclear when Fujimori will be freed, but authorities said after Monday’s court ruling that it could happen later in the week.

The 44-year-old will leave prison to a changed political landscape, facing the tough task of rebuilding her political party and career, both of which have been eroded by scandals. Her Popular Force party held a majority in congress until September, when President Martín Vizcarra dissolved the legislature in a popular move he described as necessary to uproot corruption.

The conservative Popular Force will participate in January legislative elections, but Fujimori is not expected to be a candidate and some expect the party to fade in the vote.

As leader of Popular Force, Fujimori managed to undermine the government of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, fueling the impeachment of the now imprisoned ex-president for lying about his ties with Odebrecht.

But now Fujimori herself has been ensnared by a corruption scandal that has toppled political and businesses leaders around Latin America.

In 2016, Odebrecht recognized in a plea agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that it paid some $800 million in bribes to officials throughout the region. The bribes included some $29 million in Peru for public works contracts during the administrations of President Alejandro Toledo and two of his successors. Corruption allegations have hit all of Peru's presidents between 2001 and 2016.

Prosecutors accuse Fujimori of laundering $1.2 million provided by Odebrecht for her 2011 and 2016 presidential campaigns. They opened an investigation into the campaigns after seeing a note written by Marcelo Odebrecht, head of the Brazilian mega-company, on his cellphone that said: "increase Keiko to 500 and pay a visit."

Fujimori denies the accusations against her and says prosecutors and Peru’s election body have received Popular Force's accounting books for inspection.

Her jailing capped a striking downfall for a politician who went from first lady at age 19, to powerful opposition leader, to within a hair’s breadth of the presidency.

Hundreds of mostly young people protested Monday’s ruling freeing her, calling it another demonstration of impunity for the corrupt.

But Fujimori’s supporters have painted “Free Keiko” signs around Lima. Her husband, Mark Villanella, had been on a more than week-long hunger strike outside the jail holding Fujimori.

Fujimori’s father, a strongman who governed Peru from 1990 to 2000, remains a polarizing figure. Some Peruvians praise him for defeating Maoist Shining Path guerrillas and resurrecting a devastated economy, while others detest him for human rights violations. He is serving a 25-year sentence for human rights abuses and corruption.

Keiko Fujimori assumed the role of first lady following the traumatic divorce of her father and Susana Higuchi.

She graduated in business administration from Boston University in 1997 and returned to the United States in 2000 to obtain a master's degree in business from Columbia University.

She tried to follow in her father’s presidential footsteps and forge a gentler, kinder version of the movement known as “Fujimorismo.”

She finished second in the 2011 election and five years later lost in a razor-thin vote, coming within less than half a percentage point of defeating Kuczynski.

Now, emerging into a new Peru with a dissolved congress and widespread dislike for political elites, Fujimori faces a tough situation, analysts say.

She “is in a very bad position; it will be very difficult for her to recover because the immense majority believe she really committed acts of corruption,” said analyst and sociologist Fernando Rospigliosi.

“She is not going to recover in the medium term,” he said.

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Rueda reported from Caracas, Venezuela.