N.Y. Woman in Peru Denies Notes

Associated Press -- 3 April 2001

by Rick Vecchio

LIMA, Peru - A New York woman on trial for alleged collaboration with leftist guerrillas in Peru said Tuesday that notes written in Spanish in the margins of a rebel manuscript resembled her handwriting but insisted she had never seen the document.

In the toughest cross-examination yet by the presiding magistrate, Lori Berenson also was instructed to write a series of numbers for comparison with a seating chart of Congress that she allegedly sketched to help plan a thwarted takeover of the legislature.

``I saw some letters that are similar to my handwriting but it is not mine,'' she said, after being shown the rebel manuscript page-by-page. ``I've never seen this document before.''

A secret Peruvian military court convicted Berenson, 31, of treason in 1996 and sentenced her to life in prison for allegedly helping Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement rebels plan to seize Congress to exchange hostages for imprisoned rebels.

But after years of pressure from the United States, which said her trial was unfair, Peru's highest military court overturned the conviction in August, leading to the new civilian trial that began two weeks ago on the lesser charges of ``terrorist collaboration.''

Prosecutors are seeking a 20-year sentence for Berenson, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student.

They charge she rented a house in Lima in 1995 as a hide-out for the rebels and collected information on Congress accompanied by the wife of the group's top commander.

Berenson, who denies the charges, maintained she did not know her housemates or the rebel leader's wife were members of the group, also known as the MRTA. She says she hired the woman as a photographer for an article that required interviews with lawmakers.

``The MRTA is everywhere and you are surrounded by those who are at the highest levels of the organization,'' magistrate Marcos Ibazeta asked her. ``This is pure coincidence?''

Berenson said on Tuesday that she never entered the top floor of the house, where a cache of explosives and weapons were stored, out of respect for her housemates' privacy.

She moved into a separate apartment that she shared with the rebel leader's wife. Both women were arrested on a bus in November 1995, hours before authorities raided the house.

Fourteen rebels were captured after an 11-hour gun battle, including high-ranking rebel leader Miguel Rincon. Berenson said she knew him as a historian by a different name and that she had agreed to let him rent the top floor.

Ibazeta also referred to Berenson's earlier testimony that she came to Peru in 1994 after serving as a private secretary to a top Salvadoran guerrilla leader during peace negotiations that ended El Salvador's civil war.