WITNESS-Peru's Fujimori in prison, no longer in control

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CARACAS, Sep 30 (Reuters) Alberto Fujimori was so firmly in control of Peru during his 10 years as president that he appeared politically invincible.

But seven years after he fled from office in disgrace, Fujimori has been extradited back to Peru to face trial by a justice system that once did his bidding.

Facing up to 30 years in prison on charges he ordered massacres in Peru's guerrilla wars, Fujimori was pictured headed to a maximum security cell last week, taking orders from police escorts with a pained expression on his face.

I reported on Fujimori's presidency for four years after his overwhelming re-election victory in 1995.

Now I am in Venezuela, where front page newspaper photographs of the 69-year-old son of Japanese immigrants displayed a lined, weaker face and gray in his short black hair.

In office, Fujimori was both a bold decision-maker and a micro-manager who left nothing to chance.

He took personal charge of his policies, managing public works himself with design blueprints rolled up in his palace office and flying across the Andes to oversee projects to build bridges, schools and clinics.

Once, in a motorcade run through Lima's shantytowns, Fujimori's pickup truck knocked me over. It was the president who jumped out to check I was OK, refusing to leave it to his aides or bodyguards.

Congress, the military, the courts -- they were all under the thumb of the autocratic leader in his 1990-2000 presidency.

They supported his defeat of rebel groups, hyperinflation and budget deficits despite widespread condemnation over rights abuses and an erosion of Peru's democracy.

SINISTER CONTROL There was a sinister side to his controlling character.

One journalist colleague fled into exile after revealing that the network of spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos eavesdropped on politicians, journalists and officials.

Another, who uncovered military abuses, needed an armed bodyguard. We discussed story ideas in open parks to avoid the intelligence service's listening devices.

Fujimori remains a polarizing figure.

Supporters admire his hard work and steady hand and will always thank him for decimating guerrilla groups who unleashed a civil war that caused tens of thousands of deaths.

His critics say he abused his office, relying on a power pact with Montesinos who is now also in prison after bribing, wiretapping and intimidating opponents and supporters alike.

Fujimori used to boast that he was patient, cool and calculating in a crisis.

In 1997, the stony-faced, diminutive leader meticulously planned an attack on the Japanese ambassador's residence to end a long hostage siege -- without warning Japan beforehand.

After all but one of the 72 captives were rescued and the rebels killed, Fujimori walked through the home. He stepped over the corpses strewn on the central staircase as if they were just debris from the assault's explosions.

I broke news some rebels were captured alive and executed in the raid. Fujimori denied it and his Congress chief told the legislature I supported terrorists. The case was used to support Peru's extradition request.

Rights groups also say Montesinos's men tortured 18 villagers, killing one, in an effort to find out where I had been to report on secret rebel hide-outs.

If convicted, Fujimori could spend the rest of his life in prison, but he insists he will be prove his innocence. Polls show a quarter of Peruvians want him to run for office again.

President Alan Garcia appeared politically finished when his first term ended 1990 in chaos and he fled into exile to escape embezzlement charges. But he has returned to the presidential palace. Maybe Fujimori can too.

REUTERS SZ BD1005

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