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(New York) - The criminal conviction of Peru's former spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos on charges of usurping power (usurpación de funciones) is a milestone, Human Rights Watch said today. Montesino was sentenced to nine years and four months of imprisonment, a landmark ruling in a country accustomed to years of impunity.

"Montesinos has been tried and sentenced for undermining democracy," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division. "We also expect him to pay the price for the grave human rights violations he was responsible for."

In addition to sentencing Montesinos to imprisonment, Judge Saúl Peña of the anti-corruption court ordered him to pay the State about $2.8 million (10 million soles) in damages and disqualified him from practicing as an attorney for two years.

Montesinos, a close advisor to then President Alberto Fujimori, took over the National Intelligence Service (SIN) early in 1990 as its de facto head. Using the SIN as his tool, he engineered changes in the armed forces, the judiciary, and the legislature to bolster Fujimori's two-decade rule in Peru.

Montesinos also organized the Colina Group, a death squad that carried out two massacres in the early 1990s and harassed and intimidated Fujimori's political opponents for years.

Montesinos now faces charges of murder and other crimes attributed to the death squad. More evidence may emerge in those trials indicating that former president Fujimori, now resident in Japan, ordered or helped cover up the killings. The Peruvian government is currently seeking Fujimori's extradition for these and other crimes.

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