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Montesinos quiet, but ex-mistress testifies

©Associated Press

February 19, 2003

LIMA, Peru -- Vladimiro Montesinos, the shadowy spymaster who was once Peru's most feared man, refused to testify at his first public trial for corruption Tuesday, but his former mistress had plenty to say.

Jacqueline Beltran angrily denied she had asked Montesinos to intervene to help her brother get out of prison.

As Montesinos sat stone-faced, Beltran, 34, challenged him to deny what she was saying: "Let him be a man and tell me I am lying. As authorities, you should make that man talk."

The charge Montesinos was facing Tuesday was for influence peddling, a minor offense among the dozens of charges before him that range from corruption to drug trafficking, arms dealing and directing a death squad.

His trial took place at a Lima prison guarded by hundreds of elite police commandos in camouflage combat uniforms and armed with automatic weapons.

"It is the beginning of the public trial of probably the most corrupt man in the history of Peru ... finally, after two years," said Ronald Gamarra, a special state attorney assigned to the Montesinos investigation.

Looking grayer than the last time he appeared in public six months ago, the balding, bespectacled 57-year-old Montesinos was escorted into the prison courtroom and sat down stiff-backed beside his former mistress without greeting her.

Montesinos is accused of using his reputed control of the judiciary during the past decade to get Beltran's brother out of prison. He could get five years if convicted. Beltran faces a four-year sentence.

Montesinos, dressed in a blue silk shirt and dark slacks, showed little emotion as he faced a three-judge panel and listened to the charges against him.

The former spy chief entered a written statement in which he exercised his right to remain silent and challenged the impartiality of the judges.

During the first hours of the trial, the judges heard arguments from Montesinos' lawyer that his legal rights had been violated.

Montesinos is accused of building a criminal empire involving generals, legislators, the media and judges while he served as the most trusted aide to former President Alberto Fujimori.

Investigators say he bilked Peru of hundreds of millions of dollars during Fujimori's decade-long authoritarian regime.

Montesinos was flown by helicopter from a high-security naval prison to Lurigancho prison in a shantytown on the far side of Lima. He was in handcuffs and wore a bulletproof vest. Hundreds of police ringed the prison and sharpshooters perched on nearby houses and surrounding hills.

"We are talking about the head of an organization that I think still has its tentacles out there," Gamarra said in a radio interview. "I imagine there are people interested in keeping his mouth shut. That's why we have to take security measures."

Montesinos was captured 20 months ago in Venezuela after escaping Peru on a friend's yacht.

The case against him is considered the most complicated in Peru's history because it encompasses more than a thousand people under investigation for their alleged roles in his web of corruption.

Many in Peru believe Montesinos still wields influence over a judicial system he reputedly controlled with intimidation and bribes until Fujimori's regime collapsed in 2000. His corruption trial is viewed as a test of the independence of the courts.

"The judges are afraid of trying Montesinos," Gamarra said.

Most of the charges against Montesinos are for corruption and carry eight- to 10-year sentences.

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