American Woman On Trial in Peru

Associated Press -- 4 April 2001

by Craig Mauro

LIMA, Peru - American Lori Berenson on Wednesday refused to condemn the leftist guerrilla group that she is accused of aiding in a thwarted takeover of Peru's Congress in 1995.

Presiding judge Marcos Ibazeta concluded his fourth day of questioning in the New York native's civilian trial by giving Berenson a chance to speak out against the guerrillas.

``I am not going to condemn anybody,'' she replied.

A secret military court convicted Berenson, 31, of treason in 1996 and sentenced her to life in prison for allegedly helping the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement plan a thwarted takeover of Congress.

But after years of pressure from the United States, which said her trial was unfair, Peru's highest military court overturned the conviction in August, leading to the new civilian trial that began two weeks ago on the lesser charges of ``terrorist collaboration.''

Berenson conceded Wednesday that she may have unwittingly aided the Tupac Amaru rebels, but maintained she is innocent of the charges against her.

``Is it time for Lori Berenson to assume some responsibility, by omission or commission?'' asked Ibazeta, the head of a panel of three judges who can cross-examine witnesses under Peruvian law.

``It could be a peripheral, unintentional responsibility,'' Berenson replied.

Prosecutors charge Berenson rented a suburban Lima house in 1995 as a hide-out for the rebels and collected information about Congress while posing as a journalist with the wife of the group's top commander.

Berenson maintains she did not know her housemates or the rebel leader's wife were members of the group.

The former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student recounted on Wednesday the day of her arrest in 1995, which occurred hours before an 11-hour gun battle at the house she rented. Police captured 14 MRTA rebels during the firefight, including the group's second-ranking leader, Miguel Rincon.

Berenson had moved out of the house three months earlier into a smaller apartment where the rebel leader's wife occasionally stayed.

Berenson says she knew Rincon as a historian by a different name. She maintains that she never entered the top floor of the house, where a cache of explosives and weapons were stored, out of respect for her housemates' privacy.