Peru cardinal upset by Alzamora probe
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
By Rick Vecchio, Associated Press Writer
printed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
LIMA, Peru — Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani’s ultraconservative views and cozy relationship with fugitive ex-President Alberto Fujimori have frequently helped snare him in Peru’s tangled web of political intrigues. But even his adversaries were surprised when he indignantly announced recently that he had been subpoenaed to testify in an investigation into the alleged murder of his predecessor, Monsignor Augusto Vargas Alzamora – at the hands of Fujimori’s now-jailed spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos.
“Mister prosecutor, open your mysterious files and say who mentioned me in a fictitious event because everyone knows that the cardinal died of natural causes after a long illness,” Cipriani said during his Palm Sunday Mass.
Until Cipriani’s complaint, few Peruvians would have suspected Vargas Alzamora, a liberal Jesuit, was the victim of foul play. Most still don’t. He died in September 2000, four months after suffering a debilitating cerebral hemorrhage that left him bedridden.
But Cipriani’s comments and the lurid possibility of homicide have set Peru abuzz. The Lima rumor mill has worked overtime as Peruvians recall that Vargas Alzmora and Cipriani were often at loggerheads over Vargas Alzamora’s strong criticism of Fujimori’s authoritarian methods.
During the past decade, Cipriani grabbed headlines with his support of security forces in Peru’s dirty war against far-leftist Shining Path guerrillas. He said in 1991 that most human rights groups were apologists for Marxist and Maoist organizations.
He also offered Fujimori staunch backing during the ex-president’s 1990-2000 autocratic government – although he bitterly opposed Fujimori’s family planning programs, warning that free condoms would “turn the entire country into a brothel.”
After Vargas Alzamora died, in January 2001 the Vatican named Cipriani, a bishop, as its first cardinal from the conservative Opus Dei movement, outraging political activists and many Peruvians, including some church leaders.
At his first Mass, Cipriani was confronted by protesters chanting, “Christ is justice, not complicity” and “Cipriani and Montesinos, the same killers.”
In the last year of Fujimori’s regime, Cipriani had, in fact, become critical of Montesinos’s influence.
Fujimori has been living in his parents’ native Japan, safe from extradition, since a corruption scandal toppled his government in November 2000.
In its own defense, the Attorney General’s Office said it only wanted Cipriani’s testimony because he visited Vargas Alzamora a few days before his death, not because he is a suspect. Bishop Luis Bambaren, an ardent critic of Fujimori’s regime, was also asked to testify, and has made no fuss about it.
The investigation was opened after a confidential witness claimed he overheard Montesinos tell a top aide that one of his agents had infiltrated the church and poisoned Vargas Alzamora’s food, an attorney general spokeswoman told The Associated Press.
She said the case was kept quiet to protect witnesses from public scrutiny, “but unfortunately the one who broke the confidentiality was Cardinal Cipriani himself.”
Cipriani’s complaint prompted friends and foes alike to jump to his defense and accuse the prosecutor, Hector Villar, of everything from grandstanding to carrying out a political vendetta for the cardinal’s enemies.
“We all agree – prosecutors in Peru are totalitarian. The district attorneys of Peru are fascists. They operate like a Gestapo,” constitutional expert Javier Valle Riestra said. “That’s why there is general agreement that the judicial system must be changed.”
Even former Justice Minister Fernando Olivera – himself under investigation for allegedly delivering forged documents to discredit Cipriani – criticized the proceedings.
Olivera was reported to have traveled to the Vatican in 2001 with letters purporting to show Cipriani sought the “elimination and incineration” of videotapes linking him to Montesinos after the church took money from the spy chief and requested an additional $120,000 “donation.”
The letters – one supposedly written by Cipriani, and two others by the Vatican’s ambassador to Peru – turned out to be fake. Cipriani charges that the probe of Vargas Alzamora’s death is yet another attempt to discredit him..
“Whether we like it or not, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church deserves respect,” Olivera, now Peru’s ambassador to Spain, told reporters. “The prosecutor, regardless of how independent he is, has the obligation to substantiate this type of subpoena because he should not abuse either the law or his power.”
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This article was also printed in The Wall Street Journal and the Sacramento Bee.
Posted May 4, 2004