Berenson Tours Ex-Safehouse

Associated Press -- 20 October 2000

by Rick Vecchio

LIMA, Peru - Escorted by police and court investigators, American terrorism suspect Lori Berenson returned Friday to the Lima safehouse that she shared with more than a dozen leftist rebels.

Seated in a police land cruiser between two stern-faced female officers, Berenson appeared calm, even confident, as she arrived to the four-level building in the upscale neighborhood.

The visit was part of the final stages of the investigation before prosecutors formally charge the 30-year-old New York native as a terrorist collaborator for a new trial in a civilian court.

During her last visit to the house in December 1995, she was also under escort by police, who were investigating an 11-hour siege of the hide-out that left three guerrillas and one policeman dead two weeks earlier. Fourteen rebels were captured. Berenson was not present for the shootout. She had been arrested hours earlier on a bus with a top rebel leader's wife.

Through tinted car windows, she could be seen Friday chatting pleasantly with her guards while they awaited the arrival of her attorney, court officials and prosecutors.

Wearing a blue turtleneck, plaid skirt, and dangling white earrings in the shape of fish, she didn't appear to look the part of an inmate who spent the last five years enduring brutal conditions in maximum security prisons.

The only giveaway of that were the handcuffs and the phalanx of some 30 heavily armed police pushing back local reporters. She did not respond to questions shouted out as she entered the house - now a private academic preparatory school.

For more than five hours, Berenson led the judicial entourage through the building while forensic police technicians in white lab coats took measurements.

Berenson's lawyer, Jose Luis Sandoval, maintained she never knew that her housemates for much of 1995 were rebels of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, known by its Spanish initials, MRTA. Nor did she have access to the third floor, where the large cache of weapons had been stored, he told reporters, adding that his client had moved into another apartment weeks before the police siege.

``We are here to corroborate her version of the house's layout as she has described it in her hearing,'' Sandoval said.

In January 1996 hooded military judges sentenced Berenson to life in prison without parole after declaring her guilty of treason for helping the MRTA plan an attack on Congress. Authorities say the plan was foiled by her arrest and the attack on the house.

Peru's highest military court overturned her sentence on Aug. 28, saying there was new evidence that she was not a leader of the guerrilla group. Under Peru's terrorism legislation, rebel leaders face charges of treason in secret military courts.

A year after her arrest, 14 guerrillas seized the Japanese ambassador's residence and held 72 hostages for four months. They were commanded by the MRTA's most important leader Nestor Cerpa, the husband of the woman Berenson was with when she was arrested.

Prosecutors allege Berenson used press credentials she obtained from two left-leaning U.S. publications to gain entrance to Congress, with Cerpa's wife posing as a photographer, to gather information for a takeover.