Berenson Retrial in Peru Already Unfair - Family

Reuters -- 6 September 2000

by Jude Webber

LIMA (Reuters) - A three-day-old civilian retrial for Lori Berenson, the U.S. woman jailed for life by a Peruvian military court as a terrorist leader, is already unfair and the judge has lied about procedure, her family said on Wednesday.

``We plead for a fair trial for Lori if, and only if, it is found a new trial can be lawfully held, and we don't believe that,'' the family's U.S. legal adviser, former attorney-general Ramsey Clark, told a news conference with Lori's mother, Rhoda.

In a surprise U-turn with its justice system and democratic institutions in the dock after President Alberto Fujimori won a much criticized third term in a flawed May election, Peru last week annulled the military verdict and ordered a retrial.

Berenson, a 30-year-old New Yorker who was jailed in 1996 by a hooded military judge on charges of being a leader of the leftist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and of plotting to attack Congress, was brought from the Socabaya prison in southern Peru to a maximum security jail in Lima.

Civilian judge Romel Borda began trial proceedings on Monday and has been questioning witnesses in the high-profile case that has stirred memories of Peru's bloody guerrilla wars in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which Fujimori stamped out.

But Clark said the conduct of the trial was already highly irregular. Neither Berenson, nor her representatives had been present at the questioning of witnesses and had not had access to the 15-inch-thick (37.5 cm) file of charges and testimony.

``Yesterday we met with Judge Romel Borda. He assured us he would give Lori until September 13 to find a lawyer. I can tell you that's not enough time,'' Clark said.

``Today, he told Lori she had until this Friday. He told us something quite different -- we have been lied to. Is this an intention to be fair? Can the system stand fairness?''

Peruvian Prime Minister Federico Salas told Reuters in Panama earlier that he personally believed Berenson merited a ''very drastic sentence''. Legal officials and Fujimori have said that if guilty, the minimum sentence would be 20 years.

``Here she's convicted by the president before she's even had the chance to hear the charges against her,'' Clark said.

No Decision On Lawyer

Clark said no decision had been made on a lawyer to represent Berenson, although former Prime Minister Javier Valle Riestra -- who in 1998 proposed Berenson be freed -- told local RPP radio he would be willing to take over the case.

``The family asked me my impressions on the case. ... I would accept it because it is good for Peru,'' he said.

Meanwhile, Berenson on Tuesday petitioned Borda to halt the trial until rights such as the presumption of innocence and adequate time to prepare her defense were respected.

Clark said the military council which voided the first verdict recognized evidence was insufficient and it would be ''double jeopardy'' if she were tried again on that evidence.

Peru says fresh evidence has emerged and has withdrawn charges of Berenson being an MRTA leader.

Berenson's mother, who saw her earlier on Wednesday, said she was keeping her spirits up in jail. Berenson has suffered poor health and was moved to the southern jail in 1998 after altitude-related sickness in her first prison in the Andes.

``She's maintaining her strength. She's still maintaining her sense of humor...she's very anxious to go home.

``She is still maintaining her innocence. She has never been a member of the MRTA and she has never associated with any terrorist acts,'' her mother added.

Berenson said in a radio interview taped in March 1999 but only aired on Wednesday in the United States that Peruvian authorities tortured, harassed and killed people in prisons.

Berenson elicits little sympathy among some Peruvians, who believe she got the same treatment as any other rebel.