Berenson Briefly Faces Key Witness at Peru Retrial

Reuters -- 5 April 2001

by Jude Webber

LIMA, Peru - U.S. citizen Lori Berenson on Thursday briefly faced a key witness in her civilian retrial on charges she collaborated with Peruvian rebels, setting the stage for a dramatic cross-examination next week.

Court President Marcos Ibazeta wrapped up the seventh session of the trial in a Lima prison courtroom by asking her to sit beside her lawyer while he summoned convicted guerrilla Pacifico Castrellon, the man with whom Berenson traveled to Peru in late 1994.

Within 14 months, Berenson had been imprisoned for life by a hooded military judge as a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Her lawyers have always argued that her conviction was based on unreliable evidence from the Panamanian, who is serving a 30-year term in a different prison.

Berenson's public retrial, in which prosecutors are seeking a 20-year term for ``terrorist collaboration,'' comes after Peru voided the conviction last year. Berenson denies the charges.

Berenson looked surprised as Castrellon, a middle-aged man with a gray beard, was brought into the courtroom to face the judge from the barred cell where she was held on the first day. Ibazeta has since allowed her to testify in open court.

Berenson's gaze flickered over to the man she says she met in a gallery in Quito, Ecuador, and with whom she says she struck up a friendship and went on to rent a large house in a smart Lima suburb. She denies they were lovers.

Described by her parents and lawyer as tough and stubborn, Berenson has remained poised throughout the three-week trial, answering questions in a measured tone with little emotion.

The summons of Castrellon came as a surprise. Ibazeta had already declared the day's proceedings, which lasted five hours, to be over, and he ignored a call from Berenson's lawyer to explain why he was having Castrellon brought up.

The court had not been expected to consider the conflicting testimony of Berenson and Castrellon until next week.

No Exchange Of Glances

Castrellon said nothing and stared firmly ahead at the judge without looking at Berenson. Their gaze did not meet.

``She was surprised. She looked surprised,'' her father, Mark, told Reuters after the hearing.

Ibazeta said that he had summoned Castrellon to apologize for keeping him waiting all morning and that Castrellon would be brought back to the court for questioning on Tuesday.

Castrellon was arrested in 1995 in Peru and accused of taking part in a thwarted MRTA plan to raid Congress in which prosecutors say Berenson also participated. He says Berenson had put him in touch with a rebel leader, Nestor Cerpa.

Prosecutors say Berenson, who was accredited to write for two leftist U.S. periodicals but had yet to publish a piece of journalism at the time of her arrest, posed as a reporter to gain access to Congress and sketch its layout. She was arrested in the company of Cerpa's wife, whom she said she hired as a photographer and knew under a different name.

Berenson was grilled by the other two judges on the three-judge panel -- Peru has no jury system -- about her definition of terrorism.

She told the court on Wednesday she may have ''unintentionally'' become involved with the Marxist MRTA but refused to condemn the group. It was the closest she has come to admitting a link with the rebels.

The trial continues on Monday and is expected to conclude this month.