American Woman in Lima for New Trial

The Associated Press -- 31 August 2000

LIMA, Peru -- Lori Berenson, an American woman jailed for treason in Peru, arrived in the capital Thursday for a new trial after a life sentence handed down by a secret military court was overturned.

Berenson, 30, had spent nearly five years in prison before the top military court announced three days ago that it had overturned her life sentence, paving the way for a new trial in a civilian court, a longtime demand of U.S. officials.

But the state prosecutor handling the case on Thursday confidently predicted the New York native would receive a minimum 20-year sentence in the civilian trial.

Television images showed police patting down a bespectacled Berenson, dressed in jeans and a burgundy sweater, before she was led aboard a commercial flight in the southern city of Arequipa, 475 miles southeast of Lima.

Hours later in Lima, Berenson was taken in an armored vehicle led by a heavily guarded police motorcade to the maximum security wing of the Santa Monica women's prison.

Berenson was found guilty of treason by a military tribunal in January 1996, accused of helping the rebel Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement plan an attack on Peru's Congress.

Since being convicted, Berenson has been held in two prisons. In 1998, she was moved from the a high mountain jail cell to a prison in Arequipa after complaining of harsh prison conditions and poor treatment by guards.

Peru's Supreme Council of Military Justice on Monday admitted that in light of new evidence, Berenson was not a leader of the rebel group, a crucial legal element to her previous conviction. The case was handed for retrial to the civilian court.

In an interview with The Associated Press, state prosecutor Maria del Pilar Peralta she had filed seven charges against Berenson, but declined to specify the charges.

She described the state's evidence as ``abundant'' and able to clearly link Berenson to the now all but defunct Peruvian rebel group -- known by its Spanish initials, MRTA.

Peralta said she expected the trial to center around new testimony by government officials held hostage during the rebel group's 1996 takeover of the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, during which they held 72 hostages for four months.

Peralta said the officials would provide evidence implicating Berenson in the leftist guerrilla movement.

The government officials ``supposedly talked with members of the MRTA who said she was a collaborator,'' Peralta said.

U.S. officials have criticized Peru's judicial system, saying trials in its military courts, as well as those for terrorism in civilian courts, do not meet internationally accepted standards of due process.

Berenson's case will now be reviewed by a prosecutor and a judge in closed-door hearings that could last up to 50 days. Once the evidence has been scrutinized, the prosecutor and judge will make an initial ruling, which will then be reviewed by a Superior Court. The process is secret.

If found guilty, Berenson would then appear in an open trial before the Supreme Court, with the burden of proving her innocence.

Berenson's parents have led a campaign for her release, condemning harsh conditions she has lived under in Peruvian prisons and saying their daughter was innocent, working in Peru as a journalist.