Lori Berenson, in TV Interview, Denies Peru Terror

Reuters -- 17 October 2000

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lori Berenson, the American woman jailed for life in Peru on charges of plotting with Marxist guerrillas, said in her first television interview that she did not believe in terrorism and abhorred violence.

Berenson, interviewed on camera in a maximum-security prison in Lima for the first time since her 1996 conviction, told CBS's ``48 Hours'' program that she was often in solitary confinement during the initial years of her sentence spent in an Andean prison at high altitude. A partial transcript of the interview was released by CBS News on Tuesday.

``I am not a terrorist by any means; quite the contrary; I do not believe in any act of terrorism,'' said Berenson, 30, who is awaiting a civilian retrial after her conviction for helping plan an attack on Peru's Congress was annulled in August by the country's top military council.

The military body cited new evidence, but political analysts believe the move was in response to pressure from the United States.

CBS News said the interview recorded on Oct. 12 would be broadcast on Thursday at 8 p.m. (0000 GMT on Friday).

The New Yorker was 26 when she was sentenced to life imprisonment by a secret military court. She is accused of assisting the Cuban-inspired Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) guerrilla group.

In recent years, hard-line military tactics have limited Peru's guerrilla groups to isolated attacks. Since 1980, about 30,000 Peruvians have died in wars involving the MRTA and the larger rebel group Shining Path.

``To murder innocent people, I'm not saying that is correct,'' said Berenson, according to the interview transcript. ''But what I'm saying in the general context: trying to change one's life is not necessarily wrong.''

CBS News correspondent Peter Van Sant said that Berenson's ''emphatic denials'' highlighted the 45-minute interview, which took place in the presence of Peruvian government officials.

``Lori says she is a woman of peace, she would never harm anyone, she abhors violence, and the fact that she was even charged with treason and terrorism she finds preposterous,'' Van Sant told Reuters.

Berenson has maintained that she was working as a journalist, reporting on poverty in Peru, when she was arrested along with members of the MRTA.

No Sympathy In Peru

She has little sympathy in Peru, where politicians strive to appear tough against guerrillas, and opinion polls have shown most people believe she is a MRTA member.

But a campaign to demand her freedom has many influential supporters in the United States, including most members of the House of Representatives and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. Her parents, Mark and Rhoda Berenson of New York, have also worked for her release, saying she is innocent and that her first trial was unfair because she was denied due process.

Berenson told CBS News that after her arrest, she was brought before a hooded judge and that ``behind each chair, rifles were pointed at our heads.''

She was kept in a maximum-security prison for convicted rebels, high in the Andes. Berenson said her hands ``are discolored, they're swelling, and they bleed.''

Her supporters in the United States have complained that she cannot receive due process in a civilian court because her Peruvian-based lawyer is allowed to see her for less than an hour a week to prepare for the trial.

Peruvian Prime Minister Federico Salas has said he hopes she receives a ``very drastic'' sentence in the trial, which is expected to take place by the end of the year.