Fair Trial For Berenson Said Tough

Associated Press -- 7 September 2000

by Kevin Gray

LIMA, Peru (AP) - After meeting with Peruvian judicial officials, a lawyer for the family of Lori Berenson says it's unlikely the American woman could receive a fair trial in Peru.

``We plead for a fair trial for Lori - if, and only if, it's found that another trial can be lawfully held, which we do no believe is possible,'' Ramsey Clark, a longtime legal adviser to the Berensons, said late Wednesday.

Berenson, 30, was convicted of treason by a military tribunal in 1996 for allegedly helping a rebel group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, plot an attack on the Peruvian Congress. She denies the charges.

Berenson's mother, Rhoda, arrived in Lima with Clark over the weekend, several days after the government revoked a life sentence handed down by hooded judges and granted Berenson a new, civilian trial.

But Clark said the trial, which began Monday, had started while Berenson still was without legal representation. He said the judge in the case had begun questioning witnesses and had not allowed the family access to files detailing the charges or any of the witness testimony.

``We have a right to be present when the witnesses are being examined,'' he said.

Clark said he was petitioning the judge to suspend the trial until the family had adequate time to prepare Berenson's defense.

Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori has said Berenson's sentence was overturned because of new evidence showing Berenson was not a leader of the rebel group known by its initials MRTA, as she was charged when convicted of treason four years ago.

In a radio interview taped in March 1999 but aired for the first time early Wednesday, the New York native declared her innocence, and also asserted a fair trial was nearly impossible in Peru.

``With ... such negative publicity that I've had in Peru, I would never get a fair trial,'' Berenson told Pacifica Radio in an exclusive interview taped while she was held in the Socbabaya Prison in southern Peru. Last week, she was moved to a maximum-security prison in Lima.

She said she is ``innocent of the charges they made against me.''

Berenson's case is now being examined by a prosecutor and a judge in closed-door hearings that could last up to 50 days. If found guilty, Berenson would then appear in an open trial before the Supreme Court, with the burden of proving her innocence.

A conviction of terrorism by a civilian court carries a minimum 20-year-sentence.

Berenson's parents have led a campaign for her release, condemning harsh conditions she has lived under in Peruvian prisons and asserting their daughter was never involved in any rebel group activities, but was instead in Peru working as a journalist.

After meeting with her daughter Wednesday, the elder Berenson said she found her in good spirits, and still ``maintaining her sense of humor.''

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