Berenson Lawyer: Witness Coerced

Associated Press -- 20 April 2001

by Rick Vecchio

LIMA, Peru - The defense attorney for a U.S. woman being tried on terrorism charges accused prosecutors of trying to intimidate a man who testified on Friday about her visits to Peru's Congress building.

Congressional employee Luis Diaz told a three-judge panel that he saw New York native Lori Berenson alone in the legislature's press gallery three or four times during 1995. Berenson is charged with collaborating with guerrillas who plotted a failed takeover of Congress.

But the judges, who under Peruvian law can cross-examine witnesses, and two prosecutors repeated the same questions several times, reminding Diaz that he was under oath and asking if he felt nervous.

``The questioning was intimidating,'' defense attorney Jose Sandoval said after the hearing. ``They were trying to get him to give information that they want to corroborate the prosecution's case.''

Prosecutors allege Berenson, now 31, posed as a journalist to enter Congress more than a dozen times to gather information for the thwarted takeover by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.

Police say the guerrillas planned to take congressmen hostage and exchange them for imprisoned rebels.

The wife of the Tupac Amaru's top commander, using a false name, accompanied Berenson as a photographer on some of her trips to Congress, but Berenson says she did not know the woman's true identity.

Berenson, who was an accredited journalist for two U.S.-based publications, says she was interviewing congressmen for articles on women's rights and decentralization in Peru.

A secret military court sentenced Berenson to life in prison in 1996 on a charge of treason. The conviction was overturned last year, and she won a civilian retrial on lesser charges of ``terrorist collaboration.''

Meanwhile, the head of Peru's prisons said Friday that the government will not negotiate a civilian retrial like Berenson's for convicted leaders of the much larger Shining Path guerrilla movement.

Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman and his lover, Elena Iparraguirre, are serving life sentences at a maximum security naval prison. They joined other imprisoned rebels in a hunger strike this week to demand new trials.