Berenson Was Used, Peru Rebel Leader Tells Retrial

Reuters -- 19 April 2001

LIMA, Peru - U.S. activist Lori Berenson, on trial for allegedly collaborating with Marxist guerrillas, served as an unwitting screen for the rebels, one of their imprisoned former leaders testified Thursday.

Miguel Rincon, a confessed ex-leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), said at the retrial of the 31-year-old New Yorker that she had no idea whom she had become mixed up with.

Rincon implied that a previous witness who had implicated Berenson was lying in hopes of reducing his own prison term.

Sentenced to life in prison by a hooded military judge in 1996 as a leader of the MRTA, Berenson faces up to a 20-year term if found guilty in her civilian retrial.

The new trial was granted after Peru's then President Alberto Fujimori overturned her conviction last year. Fujimori later became entangled in a web of scandal, left the country and was fired by Congress.

Berenson has refused to condemn the guerrillas in court. But she says she is innocent of the ``terrorist collaboration'' charges against her and calls herself a political prisoner.

``Miss Berenson had no official contact ... with the MRTA,'' Rincon told a Lima prison courtroom Thursday. He said the group had wanted ``someone who did not know the organization'' so it could sublet a Lima house as a base of operations without being noticed.


Rincon, who is serving his own life term in prison, said that convicted rebel Pacifico Castrellon, with whom Berenson first traveled to Peru in 1994, was the one who brought her into the picture to cover up MRTA activities.

Castrellon, a Panamanian, gave testimony earlier this week that conflicted dramatically with Berenson's version of events. He said she had introduced him to the guerrillas and he was the one who had been duped and used.

Rincon suggested that Castrellon was trying to implicate Berenson to better his own lot.

``To involve people he himself brought in to offload his responsibilities seems to me simply undignified,'' he said.

Castrellon is serving a 30-year prison sentence and was promised his own civilian retrial before he testified against Berenson.

Quizzed by a three-judge panel, a defiant Rincon said he and Castrellon had agreed they would pretend not to know each other when he was presented to Berenson, to make things look ''more natural.''

When Rincon began shouting abuse at the judge and chanting, ''Long live the MRTA,'' he was led from the courtroom.

The MRTA is best-known for attacking the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima in 1996, taking hostages and setting off a 126-day siege that stretched into 1997.

Berenson sat impassively through Rincon's testimony.