American in Prison in Peru to Get New, Civil Trial in Treason Case

New York Times -- 29 August 2000

by Shaila K. Dewan

Peru's top military court yesterday revoked the life sentence imposed more than four years ago on Lori Berenson, a New Yorker accused of treason, and granted her a new trial in civilian courts.

A statement from the Supreme Military Justice Commission gave no reason for the decision, and there was no immediate comment from the office of President Alberto K. Fujimori, who had insisted for years that Ms. Berenson would remain in prison for life as a convicted terrorist. She had been charged with helping rebels of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement plan an aborted attack on Peru's Congress.

One of her lawyers, Grimaldo Achahui, said that the new trial would begin soon and that she would remain in prison in the meantime.

Human rights officials and the Berenson family were not satisfied by the plan for a new trial. They said her first trial was unfair, and that they had no confidence the second would be any better.

The Berenson case has long bedeviled relations between Peru and the United States, and the new trial may represent a gesture by Peru to smooth relations, especially after the country's recent tarnished presidential election. Mr. Fujimori was re-elected in May after a campaign marked by irregularities and charges of voter fraud.

Most experts say the Peruvian judicial system is not independent of the executive branch, and is frequently advised how to rule. Yesterday's decision is likely to prove helpful to Mr. Fujimori's effort to improve ties with the United States.

In Washington yesterday, the new development was hailed by the State Department, which had criticized the conduct of Ms. Berenson's January 1996 trial and the harsh conditions of her imprisonment, while not taking a stand on her guilt or innocence.

"We're very pleased by the decision by the military court," said Philip Reeker, a department spokesman. "Since Ms. Berenson's conviction nearly five years ago, we have maintained that the trial proceedings against her did not meet due-process standards, and so we welcome the court's decision."

He cautioned, however, that "there remain serious concerns about the openness and fairness of trial proceedings in the military court and in cases related to terrorism in civilian courts." In this, he echoed concerns outlined in a State Department report issued in February that Peru's courts did not meet international standards of fairness.

Human rights officials and Ms. Berenson's parents also warned that, in a country whose court system has been sharply criticized, the decision did not mean that the new trial would be fair.

The Berensons, who travel frequently to Peru to see their daughter, have worked diligently to keep her case in the public eye. The couple, both former college professors, quit their jobs to devote themselves to winning her release.

At a news conference in front of their Manhattan apartment, the Berensons demanded that she be freed immediately. "There is no basis in truth or law for holding Lori another day," said her father, Mark L. Berenson, adding that it was impossible for her case to be heard in an impartial court. Ms. Berenson, now 30, was tried in secret before a tribunal of military judges wearing ski masks to conceal their identities. Her lawyers were not permitted to cross-examine witnesses.

At the time, hundreds of Peruvian civilians were also being tried in "faceless courts," under emergency measures that the government justified as necessary to combat guerrilla violence. But in recent years, more than a thousand Peruvians convicted under the draconian antiterrorism law used to convict Ms. Berenson have been pardoned and released after their cases were reviewed.

But Ms. Berenson has languished, for the first three years in Yanamayo, a high-mountain prison for terrorists, and then, after she developed health problems including intermittent blindness in one eye, in the lower-altitude Socabaya jail.

José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said it was not clear whether the same antiterrorism law would be used in Ms. Berenson's new trial. Under the law, he said, "the definition of terrorism is so broad and so vague that almost any activity could qualify as terrorist." Mr. Vivanco added that the new trial could be influenced by political concerns whether or not the law was used. "If there is one serious problem in Peru," he said, "it's lack of rule of law."

The Berensons complained yesterday that high-level Peruvian officials and judges had made prejudicial comments about the guilt of their daughter, whose defiant television appearance before her first trial made her a controversial figure in Peru.

Her imprisonment even became a campaign issue when Alejandro Toledo, the opposition candidate, said in April that he would review her case if elected. Mr. Fujimori accused him of advocating her release, and Mr. Toledo suffered in the polls. Ms. Berenson, whose parents describe her as having been empathetic with the downtrodden even as a child, grew up in Manhattan and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before beginning extensive travels in Latin America in 1988.

In 1994 she moved to Peru, telling her parents that she wanted to write magazine articles about the poverty and suffering she found there.

She does not deny that once there, she befriended the rebels, but has said that she believed the group's violent history was exaggerated. One of her attorneys, Thomas Nooter, has said that she was romantically involved with the rebel who testified against her, and that he may have incriminated her in exchange for a life sentence.

Before her trial, an angry, defiant image of Ms. Berenson was imprinted in the minds of Peruvians whose lives have been scarred by terrorism. She was taken before journalists at a detention center and videotaped raising a fist to the cameras. "If it is a crime to worry about the subhuman conditions in which the majority of this population lives," she said, "then I will accept my punishment."