Many in Peru hold little sympathy in American's retrial

Chicago Tribune -- 24 April 2001

by Patrice M. Jones

During much of her trial for alleged terrorism, Lori Berenson has maintained a persona that has made her a reviled American in a foreign land.

She has sat unflinching as she is grilled by Peruvian judges. Often she is motionless, expressionless. When she does speak, she speaks clearly and seemingly without fear.

Her stoicism has stoked the cynicism among many Peruvians who believe that Berenson, a former student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is guilty of a mid-1990s plot to seize Peru's Congress and take hostages.

Berenson's supporters say that cynicism has left them with a no-win battle in a country still scarred by years of bloody guerrilla attacks. They say that even now with a second trial, Peru's court system has offered Berenson little justice.

Berenson's first trial, in which she was convicted virtually without legal representation, has been held up by human-rights groups as proof of the need for reforms in Latin America's judicial systems.

But the allegations that Berenson was a rebel leader has made her case a difficult one in Peru.

Now 31, Berenson is facing a possible 20-year sentence as a terrorist collaborator with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, which took over the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima in 1996. The guerrillas took hostages and held them for 126 days.

"There seems to be no presumption of innocence here," Berenson's mother, Rhoda, said recently from a rented apartment overlooking a noisy street in Peru's capital, Lima.

"The basic problem Lori faces is that she is being charged under the old anti-terrorist legislation in Peru," added Coletta Youngers, senior associate for the non-profit Washington Office on Latin America. "She does not have a fully free and fair trial."

Some dispute involvement

Berenson's involvement with the Tupac Amaru is disputed by her supporters. Moreover, human-rights activists say her first trial was unquestionably unfair, and they have pushed so that her retrial might open the door for thousands of other political prisoners. Many Peruvian political prisoners were sent to jail under even more questionable legal circumstances than Berenson during the government's crackdown on terrorists in the early 1990s.

Peruvian officials concede that hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, may have been wrongly convicted. After a review, more than 1,000 Peruvians convicted under the strict anti-terrorism law have been pardoned and released.

Berenson's mother says the second trial, a civilian hearing ordered when her daughter's conviction by a military court was overturned, is just a slightly cleaned-up replay of the first trial, which was conducted before hooded military judges in Peru's now-defunct "faceless courts." Berenson was sentenced to life in prison at the first trial in 1996.

During that first trial, Berenson's parents complained that their daughter's lawyer was given virtually no time to prepare and was not allowed to cross-examine witnesses, among other irregularities.

This time, the Berensons say irrelevant and prejudicial evidence has been allowed and gross lapses have occurred, such the fact that Berenson's lawyer received the complete description of the charges against his client only four days before oral arguments began.

Difficult balancing act

Berenson's alleged involvement with the Tupac Amaru guerrilla group has long made her case a difficult balancing act, pitting motives of fairness and revenge.

"Nobody believes this government or the next will free Lori Berenson," said Mirko Lauer, a Lima political analyst.

"Everyone sees this as a case of raw U.S. pressure and have paid little attention to whether due procedures have taken place," he said. "Most people hate the MRTA and also feel the lady is sufficiently wrapped up with the MRTA that the case is sufficiently clear--she is guilty."

Berenson, who has maintained her innocence, says her nightmare started in 1995. The young woman, who had traveled Latin America for years championing leftist causes, was arrested on a Peruvian bus.

Berenson said she was working in Lima as a freelance journalist for two U.S. journals. She had made new friends but said she did not know her new acquaintances were terrorists. Prosecutors have contended Berenson posed as a journalist to inspect the security systems at the Congress to plan the attack.

Incriminating evidence

They have presented as evidence the fact that she was one of two people who rented a large house in Lima that became a staging ground for the guerrillas' plan. Berenson also hired a rebel leader's wife as her photographer. Berenson said she was unaware that her new associates were terrorists or that any plot was afoot.

When police learned of the terrorist plot, they raided the house in a gun battle that left two guerrillas and a police officer dead.

If convicted in this second trial, now in its sixth week, Berenson could appeal to Peru's Supreme Court.

For much of her initial sentence, the daughter of two college professors lived in a prison 12,700 feet above sea level in the frigid Andes, in a cell without running water or heat.

Her parents, Mark and Rhoda Berenson, say it is unfair that laws of the disgraced administration of Peru's former president, Alberto Fujimori, are being used to judge Berenson.

The Berensons' fight has long been supported by various members of the U.S. Congress, and the case was a topic of discussion in meetings between Fujimori and President Bill Clinton.

But Peruvians have a very different view of Berenson.

She has been sternly criticized in Peru since she made a rousing declaration during her initial proceedings years ago.

"I am to be condemned," she yelled angrily before TV cameras, "for my concern about the conditions of hunger and misery that exist in this country.

"There are no criminal terrorists" in Tupac Amaru, she added.

In her current court proceedings, which have been broadcast live, Berenson still has refused to condemn the guerrillas. She says she is innocent and calls herself a political prisoner.

"The Peruvian legal system still has a long way to go to give real guarantees" of justice, she told the court in fluent Spanish recently.

"She does not fit the stereotype of a woman here," Rhoda Berenson explained. "She has said strongly and repeatedly she is being tried for her beliefs, not her actions."

When the Tupac Amaru took hundreds of hostages at the Japanese ambassador's residence in December 1996, they included Berenson on a list of imprisoned people whose freedom they demanded in return for hostages--a fact many Peruvians cite as evidence of her involvement.

During the trial, two convicted guerrilla leaders have told very different stories about Berenson's life in Peru.

One leader, Miguel Rincon, said Berenson was unaware of the rebel group's plot. The other, Pacifico Castrellon, says Berenson helped plan the operation and introduced him to the group's top guerrilla leader.

The conflicting statements will be weighed by the three judges who will decide.

"She took the people at face value for whom they said they were," Rhoda Berenson said, explaining her daughter's association with the guerrillas. "Her background told her not to question people, to trust."