The Berenson Verdict to Occur June 20

Reuters -- 18 June 2001

by Jude Webber

LIMA, Peru - A Peruvian court rules on Wednesday whether jailed American Lori Berenson collaborated with Marxist rebels, helping plot an attack on Congress, or whether she is innocent as she has always maintained.

The prosecution is seeking a sentence of at least 20 years for the 31-year-old New Yorker, jailed for life as a leader of the Marxist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) in 1996, and most Peruvians believe she deserves a stiff sentence. The 1996 conviction for treason -- delivered by a hooded military judge as Berenson stood with a gun to her head -- was overturned in a surprise move last year and a civilian retrial ordered. However, Berenson told Reuters last month at a top-security Lima jail that the new trial -- which began with her speaking from behind bars -- had turned out "awful."

She says that while she shares some of the MRTA's ideology, she did not actively assist the group. She believes the court has flouted due process and wants to frame her on flimsy, circumstantial evidence. Her lawyer called for her release saying she had "no blood on her hands."

"They could give me 20, 25, 10 years, I really don't know," she said, rating her chances of release as "very difficult."

Berenson is charged with collaboration and illicit association with "terrorism." The prosecution says she posed as a reporter to help the MRTA rebels -- for whom she rented a safe house they say was used as a training camp, and where an arms and uniforms stash was found -- plan a raid on Congress.

"She came here with a specific mission ... as a collaborator with the MRTA," state attorney Mario Cavagnaro told the court in his concluding arguments earlier this month.

The MRTA came to prominence in 1996-97 in a 126-day hostage siege of the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima.

The three-judge panel trying Berenson in a special courtroom set up in a Lima jail -- Peru has no jury system -- has retired for several days to study the voluminous dossier and hours of testimony amassed in 32 hearings.

Guilty verdict expected

It reconvenes on Wednesday, three months to the day since the retrial began, and will hear final remarks from Berenson before a recess. Court President Marcos Ibazeta is due to deliver the verdict around 3:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. EDT/2000 GMT). Polls show most Peruvians, recalling 15 years of leftist violence involving the MRTA and Maoist Shining Path, have little sympathy for someone they see as a "gringa terrorista" and view her poise in court as proof of insolence or guilt.

Many believe her 1996 presentation to media at which she yelled "in the MRTA there are no criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement," was a damning apology for the rebels.

Berenson, a star student with interests in music and anthropology, dropped out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, after stints in Central America, arrived in Peru in 1994. She said she planned to work as a reporter for leftist U.S. journals, researching the plight of poor women.

The trial has picked over the details of her spell working -- she says as a secretary -- for a guerrilla leader in El Salvador's peace process, conducted handwriting analysis to see whether hers matches that found on a plan of Congress and called others jailed as MRTA rebels as witnesses.

Ibazeta has quizzed Berenson about her housemates -- she says she did not know they were in the MRTA -- saying it beggared belief that she lived in a house where recruits were confined to the top floor and yet saw nothing untoward.

Berenson was detained in November 1995 on a bus with the wife of a then MRTA leader, whom she says she hired as a photographer without knowing who she was. Hours later, police raided the safe house, sparking an all-night shoot-out.

Berenson spent her first two years in prison at the freezing Yanamayo jail 12,700 feet (3,870 meters) above sea level, suffering poor eyesight and swollen joints.

Berenson's lawyer failed at the trial to have Ibazeta removed on charges of bias and links to the discredited regime of ex-President Alberto Fujimori. President-elect Alejandro Toledo, who takes office on July 28, has ruled out special treatment for Berenson because of her nationality.