Jailed U.S. Woman Moved for Retrial

Reuters -- 31 August 2000

by Mariana Bazo

LIMA, Peru - Peruvian authorities on Thursday moved Lori Berenson, a U.S. woman jailed on terrorism charges, to the capital for a new civilian trial from a provincial jail where she was serving a life sentence for treason.

A convoy of police jeeps driving at high-speed with sirens blazing took Berenson, 30, a New Yorker jailed for life in 1996 as a Marxist rebel, to a high-security women's prison after she flew into Lima from the southern city of Arequipa.

Berenson, who came to Peru in 1994 as a reporter for leftist U.S. magazines and whose case has been a source of friction between Peru and the United States, was held in Socabaya jail for about half her four years in Peru's prisons.

Before reaching the women's prison on Thursday, the convoy suddenly slowed to a near stop on a beach road as officials in Berenson's car appeared to point out to the Pacific Ocean.

Sentenced by a secret military court in 1996, her surprise new trial is sure to put Peru's much questioned judiciary in the spotlight after President Alberto Fujimori's May reelection in a vote the opposition boycotted and called rigged.

Berenson was expected to be questioned by Judge Romel Borda later in the day. The new trial was likely to last between two and three months, according to judicial officials.

In her first public sighting in nearly two years, Berenson, wearing glasses and blue jeans with her long dark hair loose, left Socabaya jail flanked by police officers in a car as it headed for the airport. Berenson, with her right arm appearing to be in a sling, smiled and chatted with officials.

Berenson was sentenced to life by a hooded military judge for treason after being found guilty of being a leader of the Cuban-inspired Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and plotting to attack Congress. Berenson says she is innocent.

In a surprise U-turn this week, Peru's top military council, which President Alberto Fujimori is widely believed to control, annulled the verdict and passed the case to a civilian court for a retrial the president has long resisted.

Fujimori told reporters fresh evidence had emerged showing Berenson was not a MRTA leader. State prosecutor Maria del Pilar Peralta said Berenson faced a minimum sentence of 20 years if found guilty -- although her life term could be reconfirmed -- under the new trial. She could be set free.

But one of Peru's top judicial officials, David Pezua, told local Channel N television he believed she would face a maximum 10-year sentence.

Peru's Judiciary In The Dock

Peru is under international pressure to clean up one of the worst human rights records in Latin America and to restore credibility to its democracy after Fujimori's reelection.

Judicial reform is high on the 29-point agenda of democratic reforms demanded by the Organization of American States that are being debated by the government and opposition parties in tough talks that began 10 days ago.

The Berenson case, which has proved a thorn in the side of relations between Fujimori and Washington, has inflamed political passions in Peru.

Defeated presidential challenger Alejandro Toledo called the retrial a ``smoke screen'' and other opposition figures said it was a sop to Washington to win support for a government that has become increasingly isolated internationally.

Even staunch Fujimori allies questioned the retrial, while opposition figures immediately demanded the same treatment for four Chilean MRTA members also serving jail terms in Peru. Fujimori said there was no fresh evidence in those cases.

Peruvians, who suffered fierce guerrilla wars in the late 1980s and early 1990s that were halted by a Fujimori crackdown, generally have little sympathy for Berenson, believing she got the same treatment as anyone accused of being a rebel.