ANALYSIS - Berenson, Montesinos put Peruvian justice on trial

Reuters -- 1 October 2000

LIMA - As a Latin American saying has it: ''For your friends, everything. For everyone else, the law.''

Two human rights cases are putting that epigram to the test in Peru, where President Alberto Fujimori committed himself to reforming his much-criticized justice system before a political crisis exploded two weeks ago, sparking coup fears and causing the president to announce early elections.

Both cases are controversial, both center on people with scant popular support in Peru, and both have now come to a head because of U.S. diplomatic pressure, political analysts say.

One concerns Lori Berenson, a U.S. national set to receive a civilian retrial four years after a hooded military judge sentenced her to life in prison as a leader of the leftist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).

Fujimori once called the 30-year-old New Yorker a ``very dangerous terrorist,'' and Prime Minister Federico Salas has said he favors a ``very drastic sentence'' in her retrial.

The other case centers on Vladimiro Montesinos, who ran Peru's notorious National Intelligence Service (SIN) as Fujimori's top aide for a decade.

He set off the current political crisis when a video aired on television Sept. 14 showed him apparently bribing an opposition lawmaker. But an investigation was closed within a week, officially for lack of evidence.


Fujimori has defended Montesinos -- widely accused of spreading corruption, authorizing death squads and ordering torture -- as someone to whom Peru owes a debt for crushing terrorism. The disgraced spy master was put on a plane last weekend and is seeking asylum in Panama with support from regional powers.

Panama has promised to decide on his request by mid-October.

``I think the judicial cases are very interrelated with political and historical considerations,'' said Luis Pacheco, a sociology professor at Lima's San Marcos university.

``The reaction of legal authorities in these cases cannot be seen as if the judicial dimension existed in isolation.''

Diplomats and analysts say Fujimori, Latin America's longest-serving elected leader, has controlled the legal system during his decade in power with Montesinos as his henchman. Montesinos has friends in high places in the military and the judiciary, and the courts' independence is widely questioned.

Berenson's parents, who have mounted a vocal ``Free Lori'' campaign in the United States, say they are outraged by what they see as one set of laws for their daughter and another for Montesinos.


``I thought asylum was for people who were persecuted, not prosecuted,'' her father, Mark Berenson, told Reuters. ``I don't want my daughter to be a sacrificial lamb. I only ask for equality.''

Many in Peru say that Berenson, if not an MRTA leader, was at least associated with the leftist group and not innocent, as she says she is. Peru maintains that she helped the MRTA plan an attack on Congress that never took place.

Peruvians still have vivid memories of the terror campaigns conducted by the MRTA and the Shining Path group in the 1980s and early 1990s in which some 30,000 people died.

Few ordinary Peruvians will argue that Berenson deserves anything less than a stiff prison sentence.

But her 1996 trial, slammed by rights group Amnesty International as a ``parody of justice,'' strained relations with Washington, and analysts say her retrial is a result of U.S. diplomatic pressure.

The retrial is likely to reach a climax in November as Americans go to the polls, and Mark Berenson said he expected it to be over by Christmas. Fujimori, who has ruled himself out of the next election, hopes to stay in power until next July.

``Lori knows it's a show trial. She believes she's getting 20 years,'' Mark Berenson said.

Maximo Rivera Diaz, a retired general who headed Peru's anti-terrorist police, said the original sentence was ``the biggest injustice'' but that she still deserves a 10- to 15-year term for supporting terrorism.

Opposition politicians, rights groups and many ordinary Peruvians have been angered by the top-level intervention of the United States and other powers to have Montesinos whisked out of Peru to defuse tensions and coup fears.


At home, Montesinos is widely seen as a Rasputin-like figure, and many say he should finally face the music.

``What has to be seen is how the venerable institution of asylum for people who are persecuted politically can be applied when, in reality, there is an accusation of corruption and violation of human rights,'' Peru's respected government ombudsman, Jorge Santistevan, told a local radio station.

Jose Ramirez, spokesman for the Peruvian human rights group APRODEH, said that a trial of Montesinos in Peru was unlikely in the near future.

``I don't think Montesinos can be pursued in Peru because, as things stand, he manipulates the judges,'' Ramirez said.

``I think he will be tried -- not this week, not this month, but when there is another government,'' Pacheco, the sociology professor, said.