Berenson Declares Innocence on TV

Associated Press -- 19 October 2000

by Monte Hayes

LIMA, Peru - Lori Berenson, the New York woman handed a life sentence for terrorism by hooded military judges, denied in her first television interview that she was a terrorist. But she refused to condemn the leftist rebel group she is accused of helping to plan an attack on Congress.

``The charges against me are preposterous and they're obviously false,'' Berenson said in an interview with CBS News' ''48 Hours'' program broadcast Thursday night. ``I am not a terrorist by any means. Quite the contrary, I do not believe in any act of terrorism.''

But Berenson, 30, refused to condemn the pro-Cuban Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, known by its Spanish initials MRTA. The government says she participated in a MRTA plot to seize Congress and take hostages to exchange for jailed rebel fighters.

``I don't see why I have to denounce the MRTA,'' she said when CBS News correspondent Peter Van Sant asked if she was prepared to do so before American television viewers.

When Van Sant pointed out that the MRTA had kidnapped and murdered people, Berenson replied, ``I don't have a right to give any judgment. I'm not going to denounce anyone. To murder innocent people, I'm not saying that is correct. But what I'm saying in the general context - trying to change one's life is not necessarily wrong.''

She said she had no reason to believe the MRTA was a terrorist organization. She said she did not realize that many of the people she socialized with, including people she shared a house with, belonged to the MRTA.

``I mind my own business,'' she said.

In January 1996 a closed military tribunal sentenced her to life in prison without parole after declaring her guilty of treason for helping the Tupac Amaru rebels plan an attack on Congress. Authorities say they foiled the alleged plan.

Peru's highest military court overturned the sentence on Aug. 28, paving the way for an open civilian trial and a chance for Berenson to clear her name. The trial is expected to begin in the next several weeks.