Berenson, Witness Testimony Differs

Associated Press -- 17 April 2001

by Craig Mauro

LIMA, Peru - Lori Berenson and the key prosecution witness in her terrorism trial faced one another in court Tuesday, giving contradictory accounts of alleged contacts with Peruvian rebels.

Presiding judge Marcos Ibazeta ordered the New York native and Pacifico Castrellon, a Panamanian, to meet in a so-called ``confrontation'' procedure used in Peruvian trials to resolve differing witness accounts.

But neither one budged from their conflicting statements in which the two described their 1994 journey to Peru and how they rented a suburban Lima house.

Prosecutors say members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement or MRTA used the house a few months later as a secret hideout to plan a raid on Peru's Congress to take hostages and exchange them for rebel prisoners.

Five years ago, a secret military court sentenced Berenson, now 31, to life in prison for helping plan the thwarted Congress takeover, but after years of pressure from the United States the conviction was overturned in August.

A civilian court began a retrial of Berenson in March on lesser charges of ``terrorist collaboration.'' The prosecution is seeking a 20-year sentence.

Castrellon was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aiding MRTA but his conviction was overturned recently and he will also face a new civilian trial.

In her testimony, Berenson again denied that she and Castrellon had an arranged meeting in Panama and then traveled to Quito, Ecuador, where they received $5,000 from a disguised rebel leader for the trip to Lima, as Castrellon testified.

Castrellon said the man who gave them the money identified himself as ``Carlos,'' but that he was really the MRTA's top commander, Nestor Cerpa.

Castrellon also said Cerpa introduced him and Berenson to a woman identified as ``Isabel,'' who later gave them cash and instructed them to rent the Lima house.

Berenson denied ever meeting Carlos or Isabel in Quito or taking money or instructions from either. She said she met Castrellon by chance in a Panama City gallery and later paid $6,000 to rent the Lima house with him to save money on hotel rooms and have extra space for entertaining out-of-town guests.

But during cross-examination, Castrellon declined to accuse Berenson of collaborating with the MRTA and said he never heard her talk about politics or the guerrilla group.