Berenson Denies Peru Guerrilla Collaboration

Reuters -- 13 September 2000

by Tania Mellado

LIMA - American Lori Berenson denied before a judge on Wednesday that she had collaborated with guerrillas in a plot to attack Lima's parliament and her lawyer said she had an intellectualized, outsider's view of Peru.

``She had an understanding of some aspects of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) that was perhaps an outsider's view, a vision that was distorted and wrong,'' lawyer Jose Sandoval told reporters after the five-hour session.

``She made her statement. She denied any type of collaboration with the MRTA. She answered all the questions, in my view, satisfactorily,'' Sandoval added.

It was the first time Judge Romel Borda had questioned the 30-year-old New Yorker with her lawyer present since Peru two weeks ago annulled a 1996 verdict by a hooded military judge that sentenced Berenson to life as an MRTA leader.

Peru said new evidence had emerged and ordered a civilian retrial of Berenson, who says she came to Peru to work as a journalist on social issues for two leftist U.S. magazines.

Many Peruvians disapprove of the retrial, according to a new opinion poll published on Wednesday.

``She rules out militancy. I think she had a very intellectualized vision of Peruvian reality,'' Sandoval said.

If Borda rules there is a case, Berenson will face a public trial in the Lima jail where she is being held by a three-judge panel from a special anti-terrorist court.

The trial -- which could come to a climax as Americans go to the polls in November -- is sure to put President Alberto Fujimori's poor human rights record in the international gaze after his May reelection in a vote widely condemned as flawed.


Political analysts question why a retrial should have been allowed now -- Fujimori has long been opposed -- and whether it signaled he was yielding to international pressure to boost democratic reforms in exchange for more diplomatic acceptance.

An opinion poll conducted by leading consultants Apoyo and published in El Comercio newspaper on Wednesday showed 31 percent of the 531 respondents believed the retrial was triggered by U.S. pressure.

Twenty-two percent of respondents said they thought it was a smokescreen to divert public opinion from an arms scandal in which Fujimori claims Peru smashed an international ring trafficking guns from Jordan to leftist rebels in Colombia. Both countries have disputed his version of events.

Just 11 percent believed new evidence had emerged that Berenson was not an MRTA leader, as had been claimed in 1996.

Fujimori, in power since 1990, commands loyalty among many Peruvians for stamping out guerrilla activity by the MRTA and Maoist Shining Path rebels that sowed terror in Peru and cost some 30,000 lives in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The poll found 52 percent of respondents disapproved of the civilian retrial, 33 percent believed Berenson was an active MRTA militant, 20 percent believed she was an MRTA leader and 20 percent believed she was an MRTA sympathizer.

Fifty-two percent believed suspected rebel leaders or militants should be tried in a military court and 62 percent disapproved of holding any retrial in a civilian court.