Peru anti-terrorism prosecutor says U.S. citizen Lori Berenson's pregnancy won't win her early release from prison

Peruvian Times -- 18 September, 2008

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Lori Berenson, a New York native imprisoned for collaborating with leftist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) guerrillas, will serve out her 20-year sentence even though she is now four weeks pregnant, counter-terrorism state prosecutor Julio Galindo said Wednesday.

"Under no circumstances will the pregnancy justify an interruption in Lori Berenson's jail sentence or that of any other defendant," said Galindo in comments to state news agency Andina.

Adequate medical care is provided in Peru's prisons, he argued, and facilities exist, allowing incarcerated women who give birth to keep their children with them for the first three years.

"Her pregnancy is normal and she is carrying out her daily activities in the bakery," added the northern Director of Peru's National Penitenciary Institute, or INPE, Elmer Baca Clavo.

But Berenson's family members, who are elated by the news that she is expecting, are also worried that her pregnancy may be at risk. Berenson, 38, has health problems including back ailments and significant hearing loss in one ear. Her age may also increase her risk of miscarrage, placenta previa, fetal distress, down syndrome, high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease during pregnancy.

Berenson is scheduled for release in November 2015, but could be eligible for conditional parole in 2010. For the last seven years she has been held in Cajamarca's Huacariz prison, located approximately 850 kilometers, or 530 miles, northeast of Peru's capital, Lima.

A former Massachussets Institute of Technology student, Berenson was arrested on a public bus in downtown Lima on November 30, 1995 and charged with helping plan a thwarted takeover of Peru's Congress. Berenson was sentenced to life by a secret military court for "treason against the fatherland," but that conviction was vacated in 2000 and she was retried by a civilian court.

In 2004, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights upheld the civilian court's ruling, rejecting Berenson's legal argument that the second conviction amounted to double jeopardy and closing her last recourse to appeal her 20-year sentence. The Costa Rica-based court's decision came after years of rulings against Peru for its draconian counter-terrorism laws.

The MRTA, inactive since the late 1990s, was a Cuban-inspired guerrilla group that waged a campaign of assassinations, kidnappings and bombings, but was dwarfed in the shadow of the far more violent and deadly Maoist Shining Path. According to Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the MRTA was responsible for less than 2 percent of the estimated 70,000 deaths caused by political violence between 1980 and 2000.

Berenson has steadfastly maintained that she is a political prisoner and that she never knowingly collaborated with the MRTA, which is best known for its December 1996 raid on a VIP party in the Japanese Ambassador's residence in Lima, and an ensuing four-month standoff that ended with a daring commando raid that killed all 14 of the rebels, and saved all but one of 72 hostages.

The rebels had demanded freedom for hundreds of imprisoned comrades. Berenson was No. 3 on the list.

Peruvians still remember Berenson's Jan. 8, 1996, appearance before television cameras, when she made her now famous declaration in defense of the guerrilla group. With fists clenched at her sides, her face contorted in anger, she shouted: "There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA. It is a revolutionary movement."

The hooded military judges convicted her days later of treason, denying her the right to present a legal defense or cross examine prosecution witnesses.

"I am innocent of all charges against me. Neither of my trials, in the civilian or military court, has proven me guilty of any crime," said Berenson in her closing statement in 2001. "I have been called a terrorist, a term that has been used and abused in Peruvian society for far too many years, mostly because of the psychological impact of a concept that brings to mind indiscriminate violence designed to terrorize; irrational destructive violence; deadly, senseless terror. I am not a terrorist, and as I stated in this courtroom before, I condemn terrorism, I always have."

Berenson is married to human rights attorney Anibal Apari, a paroled former MRTA member.

Upon his release from prison in 2003, Apari married the New York activist and returned to law school. He now works in an organization that provides legal aid to people accused of subversion.