Resigned Berenson Says Peru Retrial 'Awful'

Reuters -- 7 May 2001

by Jude Webber


LIMA, Peru - Lori Berenson sits on a bench in a Peruvian prison yard, both angry at how ``awful'' she feels her retrial on terrorism charges is turning out and resigned to scant hope of going home to the United States any time soon.

``They could give me 20, 25, 10 years, I really don't know,'' the 31-year-old New Yorker told Reuters over the weekend, occasionally nudging a stray ball back to a child playing with his mother during visiting hours on the concrete patio.

Berenson is allowed visitors at her prison in a scruffy Lima suburb under a recently relaxed regime for top-security inmates.

Female guards smoking and chatting look on as the prisoners talk, entertain, wash clothes or cut hair in the partly covered yard, whose walls are freshly painted cream, or mill inside the dingy cell block with a gaudy Roman Catholic shrine inside.

For a woman who has spent most of the last 5-1/2 years locked in dank cells in tough Andean jails, Berenson looks well and is surprisingly calm, her voice level even when blasting the judge she says is running a biased ``show trial.''

Convicted in 1996 as a rebel leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and sentenced to life by a hooded military judge with a gun to her head, Berenson says she is luckier than most prisoners -- her conviction was overturned last August and she was granted a civilian retrial.

She says she is innocent even of the lesser ``terrorist collaboration'' charges she now faces, for which prosecutors are seeking a 20-year term, saying only that any involvement with the MRTA was ``unintentional'' and ``circumstantial.''

Peruvians have scant sympathy for her and many, unnerved by her poise in court, believe her case does not add up.

Berenson said jail had made her ``less impulsive'' and she, too, was ``surprised I have not been close to blowing my top.''

Asked how the trial was going, Berenson spat: ``Awful.

``I guess I couldn't imagine the judge was going to be prosecutor, court and state at the same time,'' she said.

``Montesinos' Men, Fujimori's Laws''

Berenson says court president Marcos Ibazeta was discredited by being named in a video taped by corrupt ex-spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos as ``part of the team.'' Discovery of the mafia Montesinos ran in Peru's courts, Congress, media and military felled ex-President Alberto Fujimori last year.

``It's Montesinos' men, Fujimori's laws,'' she said. Although Fujimori's legacy has unraveled, many Peruvians still thank him for his toughness in stamping out 15 years of rebel violence.

Ibazeta, who is running for Peru's human rights ombudsman, has let Berenson testify outside a barred cell -- rare in terrorist cases. But she says he is ``playing to the press.''

The court last week dismissed a motion to have Ibazeta thrown off the case, saying the defense should not have waited until seven weeks into the trial to make its objections.

The trial continues on Monday, its 21st session, and a verdict is expected at the end of this month.

Berenson grants she is ``somewhat idealistic'' and shares the MRTA's leftist concern for social change, though she said she ''wouldn't necessarily agree with everything the MRTA has done .. I don't agree with acts of terrorism by anyone.''

She said she had ``not intentionally been involved in things the MRTA has done ... I'm innocent of what I'm being charged of .. They should let me off for lack of evidence.''

Nevertheless, she said she had met people convicted, despite inconclusive proof, on ``criteria of conscience'' -- essentially a court's conclusion as Peru has no jury system.

``That's what is going to happen to me as well,'' she said, rating her chances of an innocent verdict as ``very difficult.''

``I'm very sad and sorry people have died in Peru but I'm not responsible and I won't say I am so they can let me off,'' she said.

Controversial Past, Uncertain Future

Berenson, who dropped out of anthropology studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says she was a secretary to a guerrilla leader during El Salvador's peace process -- something her family only discovered after her arrest -- and knew little about the MRTA when she moved to Peru in 1994.

Her traveling companion, with whom she rented a house, was a man later convicted of MRTA links. Berenson later sublet it to the MRTA's No. 2, Miguel Rincon, whom police said ran a rebel training camp there. Berenson says she did not know who her friends were or anything about weapons later found there.

She is charged with posing as a journalist, with the wife of an MRTA leader as a photographer, to help plot an attack on Congress. The attack never happened, but the MRTA launched a 126-day hostage siege in Lima a year after her arrest.

``I'm certainly a leftist and I will never deny that, but that doesn't mean I was involved in taking over Congress,'' Berenson said. Rincon has testified that she had ``no official contact ... with the MRTA.'' Berenson's routine is rigid -- up at 5:00 a.m., helicopter to the trial on court days, lock-up in the 8-1/2 foot wide concrete cell she shares with one woman at 10 p.m. -- but she said: ``I don't think I've ruined my life, really.

``I am confident I will get out. I don't know when.''