Lori Berenson Grilled for Fifth Day

Associated Press -- 3 April 2001

by Jude Webber

LIMA, Peru - In a tough session of her civilian trial in Peru, American Lori Berenson on Tuesday was given a handwriting test and grilled about why it was she seemed to surround herself with Marxist rebels. Berenson, a 31-year-old New Yorker, is charged with collaborating with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Her 1996 life sentence by a military court on terrorism charges was overturned last year, but she faces up to 20 years in jail if convicted in the retrial. "Wherever you went, you were inundated with MRTA," court president Marcos Ibazeta told Berenson, who responded that she saw nothing unusual about her stay in Peru.

Berenson, who denies the charges, was given a handwriting test to see if her script matched that of evidence contained in a dog-eared 1,000-page file. She also was asked to examine what was called an MRTA document to see if she recognized her writing. Berenson said she saw some similarities but denied writing or ever seeing the document. Prosecutors say Berenson aided MRTA rebels with whom she rented a house in a smart Lima suburb by posing as a reporter and sketching a plan of Congress.

They say the group planned to raid Congress and take hostages to swap for jailed rebels. Berenson says she did not know that the Panamanian citizen with whom she traveled to Lima and rented the house, Pacifico Castrellon, and other acquaintances had MRTA links. Berenson's lawyers argue her conviction was based on unsound evidence from Castrellon.

The retrial, which puts Peru's justice system in the dock after the fall of President Alberto Fujimori last year, gives Berenson her first chance to defend herself.


Ibazeta grilled Berenson for 2-1/2 hours on her life in Lima, where she arrived in late 1994 to pursue social studies after working in Nicaragua and El Salvador as a secretary for leftist Farabundo Marti Liberation Front rebel group. He focused on how she rented a house that prosecutors allege became an MRTA training camp packed with arms, a residence where she shared a floor and bathroom with rebel leaders but professed not to know other tenants. Speaking in fluent Spanish, Berenson said she kept to herself. Ibazeta also grilled her about how she came to meet Nancy Gilvonio, the wife of an MRTA leader, Nestor Cerpa, whom she hired as a photographer. Berenson was accredited to write for two small leftist U.S. journals but had yet to publish a piece of journalism by the time of her arrest in November 1995. Ibazeta asked whether it was "pure coincidence" that she met Gilvonio, moved into a second apartment where Gilvonio stayed on occasion and took up journalism within a short time.

Berenson rejected as "false" testimony from MRTA rebels likely to be called as witnesses, saying said she saw "no particular coincidences" and "nothing strange" in her Lima lifestyle. Berenson's family say she only saw the charges against her four days before the trial began last month and doubt she will get a fair hearing in Peru. The trial continues on Wednesday.