U.S. Woman Testifies in Peru Case

Associated Press -- 10 April 2001

by Craig Mauro

LIMA, Peru - A New York woman accused of collaborating with Peruvian rebels testified Tuesdsay that police tried to use her as a ``human shield'' during a long gunbattle in which 14 guerrillas were captured in the Lima house she had rented.

Lori Berenson said that police whisked her to the house shortly after her 1995 arrest and tried to force her to open the front door, but she refused, while more than a dozen officers crouched behind a police car out front.

``They wanted to use me as a human shield to open the door of a house so the police could make their armed incursion,'' she said.

A judge responded that her fear of going near the house showed she was aware that the occupants were armed rebels - something Berenson has maintained she didn't know.

The testimony came as Berenson, 31, concluded her eighth day of testimony in a civilian trial for allegedly plotting with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, to raid Peru's Congress to take and then exchange hostages for imprisoned rebels.

In 1996, a secret military tribunal convicted Berenson of treason and sentenced her to life in prison for masterminding the thwarted Congress takeover. But after years of pressure from the United States, Peru overturned the conviction in August, leading to lesser charges and a civilian retrial, which began four weeks ago.

Prosecutors say she rented the Lima house as a secret training center for the rebels and gathered intelligence about Congress while posing as a journalist.

Berenson has repeatedly denied the charges, asserting that police manufactured or doctored evidence against her and forced testimony from the captured guerrillas. She says she never knew her housemates were MRTA members.

Judge Marcos Ibazeta spoke of a ``spider web of coincidences'' that he argued linked Berenson to the MRTA. He asked why she was worried about approaching the house with police if she didn't know it was occupied by rebels armed to the teeth with weapons and explosives.

``Obviously that is difficult to believe,'' Ibazeta said heatedly, pointing a finger at Berenson. ``You were scared, because you knew there were people staying inside your house and they were armed and the response was going to be militant.''

``That is completely false,'' she answered.

Ibazeta presides over a panel of three judges, who under Peruvian law can cross-examine defendants and witnesses.