Berenson's Mother Fears Peru Retrial a Done Deal

Reuters -- 9 September 2000

by Jude Webber

LIMA - The mother of jailed American Lori Berenson's worst nightmare is that Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was ``telling the future'' when he said her daughter could face a 20-year sentence in a civilian retrial on terrorism charges.

And that, Rhoda Berenson told Reuters in an interview, would be the same as a life sentence -- or worse.

Asked if she believed the verdict in a highly political case that will test Fujimori's commitment to implementing the democratic reforms Washington and the international community has demanded was a done deal, Berenson replied simply, ``Yes.''

``My worst nightmare is that when President Fujimori said she had the new trial and will be convicted and will get 20 years, that he wasn't just speculating but he was telling the future,'' Rhoda Berenson said late on Friday.

``He has the power to tell the future.''

Fujimori, whose poor human rights record and questionable commitment to democracy has been in the spotlight since his reelection in May in a vote widely criticized as flawed, has said that if found guilty, Berenson could face a 20-year term.

Peru's top military council, which Peruvians widely believe Fujimori controls, last week voided a 1996 verdict by a hooded military judge which jailed Berenson for life as a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and passed the case to a civilian court. Fujimori has long opposed a retrial.

``A 20-year sentence in these prisons is a life sentence,'' said Berenson, whose daughter has circulatory problems and poor vision from years in cold, dimly lit cells on a poor diet. ''Certainly 20 years is more than anyone can suffer.''

Daughter Is ``Political Pawn''

She said she believed her 30-year-old daughter, who came to Peru to work as a journalist on social issues but never had an article published, was being manipulated for political ends.

The New Yorker, whom Peru has said it is no longer trying on charges of being an MRTA leader, says she is innocent.

``The point is that Lori's name has come up whenever there has been the need to cover up a scandal, whenever (Fujimori) has needed to look tough against the United States,'' she said.

``I believe she is being used as a political pawn. ... But I don't know what game President Fujimori is playing. ... What do they need her for any more?'' her mother said.

Berenson, who has mobilized a vocal lobby in the United States with prominent figures including the Reverend Jesse Jackson pressing for Lori's release, said she ``certainly hoped to reach out'' to both presidential candidates Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. Lori's retrial could come to a head in November, when U.S. voters go to the polls.

Fujimori, in power for 10 years, inspires loyalty among many Peruvians for stamping out leftist guerrilla activity, which had cost some 30,000 lives, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The judicial U-turn came as the government and opposition drew up a short list of reforms in the media, courts and spy service -- the first sign of progress in talks to strengthen Peru's democratic institutions. Analysts wonder, however, if real action will follow or if change will be purely cosmetic.

Peru on Friday agreed to put Berenson's trial on hold for a few days while her new lawyer began work -- but he was not expected to have access to the copious case file until Monday.

``She hopes (she'll be home soon) but she and we know there's no sense expecting to wake up tomorrow'' with her freedom, Rhoda Berenson said.

The family has had its hopes dashed before. Berenson said there was ``dialogue'' in progress with the Peruvian government in 1996 -- but then MRTA militants took hundreds hostage at the Japanese ambassadors' residence in Lima and no further progress was made.

``I would like to think President Fujimori has a heart,'' she said. ``He has children, he has a sense of morality.''