Lori Berenson: I Am Not a Terrorist

Associated Press -- 20 June 2001

LIMA, Peru - Lori Berenson, the New York native who for more than five years has described herself as a prisoner of conscience, declared her innocence Wednesday in a final bid to win acquittal on charges of ties to leftist guerrillas.

Speaking in Spanish to the three-judge tribunal, Berenson said: ``I am not a terrorist.'' A verdict was expected later Wednesday.

``I consider these charges haven't been proven either in the military or the civilian court,'' she said.

The civilian retrial was granted by Peru after years of U.S. pressure. Berenson, now 31, was originally sentenced to life in prison for treason in 1996 by a secret military court.

Berenson was brought to the court, flanked by two female officers in bulletproof vests. In wire-rimmed glasses, a beige jacket and a gray turtleneck, she sat impassively with her hands clasped in her lap while a court clerk read the minutes from the previous session.

Her parents, Rhoda and Mark Berenson, appeared anxious, sitting in the front row of the jailhouse courtroom at San Juan de Lurigancho prison, crowded with journalists and Berenson's supporters.

After his daughter's 45-minute statement, Mark Berenson made a peace sign with his fingers and reaffirmed his belief in Lori's innocence.

``She loves Peru, she loves justice. If there is justice in this country, this court will acquit her,'' he said.

Berenson has denied any role in a thwarted plot by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, to seize Peru's Congress. After she gives her closing statement, the tribunal is expected to recess for several hours before delivering a verdict.

Prosecutors are seeking a 20-year sentence on charges of ``terrorist collaboration'' or ``illicit association.'' She was widely expected to be found guilty. Peru's president would have the option of pardoning her.

A spokesman for President-elect Alejandro Toledo, who assumes office July 28, said Wednesday that Toledo had no immediate comment on the possibility of a pardon. But the spokesman said the issue might come up during Toledo's visit next week to New York and Washington, where he will be seeking economic aid.

Justice Minister Diego Garcia Sayan said Tuesday, however, that Berenson would serve out her sentence in Peru.

Many Peruvians considered Berenson's attitude during the trial to be defiant and an indication of her involvement with the rebels.

``She is obviously guilty. There's no question at all in my mind,'' said Sergio Casassa, a 23-year-old Lima resident. ``And anyone who has been through what Peru lived through during the years of leftist terrorism will know what I mean. The past isn't forgotten that quickly.''

On Wednesday, Berenson, her hands at her side, apologized for her appearance more than five years ago when she was presented to the media and angrily shouted support for Peru's poor and described the MRTA as a ``revolutionary movement.''

Her words were seen in Peru as an admission of guilt.

``That is not what I think or who I am,'' she said, adding that she believed in social justice and was merely reacting to the torture she said was suffered by her co-defendants.

Her lawyer, Jose Luis Sandoval, said any conviction will be appealed to Peru's Supreme Court - a process that will likely take several months - as well as to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which could take years.

The former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student has criticized Peru's anti-terrorism laws, accused police of doctoring or fabricating evidence, and repeatedly refused to condemn the MRTA as a terrorist group.

Prosecutors have built part of their case on what they described as her lack of repentance.

The three judges in the non-jury trial have also responded to Berenson's defense with skepticism. Berenson says she had no idea that her roommates in the house she rented in 1995 were guerrillas.

``People are in your house armed to the teeth and you said nothing and you heard nothing?'' Presiding magistrate Marcos Ibazeta asked Berenson three weeks into the trial.

Exasperated, Ibazeta spoke of a ``spider web of coincidences'' that he argued linked Berenson to the MRTA.

Berenson was convicted of treason in 1996. The United States complained her trial was unfair. Citing new evidence, Peru overturned the conviction in August, leading to the new civilian trial.

Peru had hoped the retrial would showcase how much its justice system has improved since the fall of former President Alberto Fujimori's 10-year autocratic government in November.

Berenson supporters complain that the court has applied the same severe anti-terrorism laws decreed by Fujimori in 1992 during a state of emergency.

Berenson came to Peru after working as a personal secretary to a top Salvadoran rebel leader during peace negotiations that ended El Salvador's bloody civil war in 1992.

Prosecutors say she posed as a journalist, with the wife of a top MRTA commander acting as her photographer, to enter Peru's legislature several times in 1995 to gather information. Berenson, who was accredited by two left-leaning U.S. magazines, but never published, insisted she was researching articles about Peruvian women and poverty.

Berenson and the other woman were arrested together on a bus hours before an all-night siege of the rebel safehouse, in which three rebels and one police officer died and 14 guerrillas were captured.

Evidence allegedly seized from the house included a coded floor plan of Congress allegedly drawn by Berenson. There was also a forged Peruvian election ID card bearing her photo. She suggested the evidence was planted by police.