LIMA, Peru (AP) – The first photograph showed an ugly open sore near the tip of Alberto Fujimori’s tongue. In the second, a palid Fujimori lay in bed in a white T-shirt, hair tousled, looking ghastly.
Last week, a third image of the jailed ex-president, a smiling self-portrait, began to circulate. Like its two predecessors, it quickly saturated Peru’s news media and social networks, where new Facebook pages had emerged to supplement several already dedicated to winning his freedom.
A campaign is in full swing to win a pardon for Fujimori from the 25-year prison sentence he is serving for death squad killings and corruption during his 1990-2000 rule. And it appears to have some traction.
An opinion poll published this month by the CPI firm said 70 percent of Lima residents favor a pardon and 28 percent are opposed. The survey of 500 people had an error margin of more than four percentage points.
A hugely divisive figure, Fujimori maintains a fierce core of supporters whose political party is the second-strongest in Congress. His daughter Keiko finished second in the 2011 presidential race and his detractors, who don’t believe he is terminally ill, fear the pardon request is a ploy to reclaim momentum for a movement whose regime was named the seventh most corrupt in modern history by Transparency International.
Keiko and Fujimori’s other three children say the 74-year-old former president has tongue cancer. On Oct. 10, they formally requested he be pardoned “on humanitarian grounds” after five years of incarceration in Peru.
A decision on the pardon petition is up to President Ollanta Humala, who has convened an expert panel to consider it and has no obligation to issue a ruling. Humala hasn’t commented on the request.
Some Fujimori’s backers have downplayed the public relations campaign to gain the pardon, perhaps fearing it could backfire by swaying Humala against them.
“The only campaign going on here is of intimidation against we who are trying independently to help President Fujimori in this pardon process,” longtime Fujimori publicist Carlos Raffo told The Associated Press. “There is no specially formed team for this.”
Fujimori is widely esteemed for beating down runaway inflation and defeating the fanatical Shining Path insurgency as president. But his government was increasingly autocratic and corrupt, and ended in disgrace with the leaking of videos of his spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, making payoffs to lawmakers and business executives.
About 1,500 people connected with his government have been prosecuted for corruption and more than 50 are fugitives, including four siblings of the ex-president. Fujimori himself fled to Japan in disgrace in 2000, faxing in his resignation. He later tried to return to stage a comeback but was arrested in Chile. After losing an extradition battle he was returned home and put on trial.
Peru’s Cabinet chief, Juan Jimenez, said in a television appearance Sunday that it is his understanding Fujimori “is not in a terminal situation.” The law says a pardon can be granted if a prisoner has a terminal illness and his incarceration is deemed life-shortening, Jimenez said.
The former president’s children contend their father is a high-risk cancer patient who suffers from depression, hypertension and chronic gastritis. But the director of the hospital where Fujimori has been treated, Dr. Juan Postigo, says the ex-president’s medical situation is stable.
One of Fujimori’s surgeons, Pedro Sanchez, said cancerous tissue has been removed from the ex-president’s tongue only twice. The first was in 1997, when he submitted to the first of five tongue surgeries. The second was in 2008, the year Fujimori was convicted of authorizing a death squad that killed at least 25 people in the early 1990s.
The last operation was in August, and the photo of Fujimori’s sore-afflicted tongue was apparently taken afterward. Raffo said it was released by the former leader’s son, Congressman Kenji Fujimori. Raffo would not say who released the other pictures, though he did say Alberto Fujimori authorized the release of the supposed self-portrait, which depicts a smiling Fujimori in better days, clad in attire he would have typically donned in visits to the provinces.
It is inscribed: “Forgive me for what I did not accomplish and for what I could not prevent. A. Fujimori. October 2012.”
Many Fujimori detractors consider the pardon campaign a new attempt to regain power. They believe he would have ruled from the shadows if Humala had not defeated Keiko in last year’s runoff. She said at one point that she would pardon him, and her campaign was largely run by former close associates of her father.
The former president’s conditions of confinement already give some Peruvians pause. He lives in relative comfort in a suite of rooms at a police special forces base on Lima’s eastern edge where guests come and go at his pleasure.
Before a pardon is even considered, some Peruvians say, Fujimori owes the nation an apology for his government’s abuses.
“If they are going to pardon him, I want to be given the remains of my son. Let them tell me at least where he was buried so I can recover him and give him a Christian burial,” said Raida Condor, mother of one of nine students at La Cantuta University for whose killing Fujimori was convicted.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)