I Condemn All Terrorist Activity

Newsweek -- 20 June 2001

by Rachel Hays

Outside the San Juan de Lurigancho prison on the outskirts of Lima, life in the shanty town got underway as usual. A water truck navigated the rocky unpaved streets for an early morning water delivery. Women set up their market stalls for a day's work selling oranges, Coca-Cola and cheap woolen hats to guard against the Lima winter. Inside the brick-and-concrete prison, a different drama was unfolding as American Lori Berenson declared that she was not a terrorist.

I am innocent of the charges against me,' the 31-year-old former MIT student accused of collaborating with Peru's Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) declared in her closing statement to the court. 'They have called me a terrorist, but I would say that that word has been used as part of a psychosocial campaign to generate terror. I am not a terrorist. I condemn all terrorist activity,' she said. The court was unconvinced. Within hours of her address, Berenson was convicted of collaborating with leftist guerrillas in a plot to attack Peru's Congress, but cleared of charges she was an active rebel militant. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison and fined about $28,000. 'I believe this is an unjust decision,' she said after the sentencing.

Earlier, Berenson had been calm and articulate as she addressed the crowded jailhouse courtroom for almost an hour about the beliefs and activities that led to her 1995 arrest on charges of treason. Wearing black pants, a beige blazer and the fish earrings that she's worn throughout the trial, her analysis of liberation theology and the history of Peru's antiterrorist legislation at times seemed more in keeping with an MIT political science seminar than a trial.

'It's not a crime to worry about the poor and the oppressed, which is what I've spent my adult life doing,' she declared. 'During the trial I have not hidden my ideas or my life. I have been honest and transparent. For me it has been an honor to work for social justice.'

Five years in jail

Originally charged with treason and sentenced to a life in prison by a panel of hooded military judges, Berenson already had served more than five years in Andean jails. Her new civilian trial was granted after a military court annulled her life sentence as the regime of former president Alberto Fujimori was crumbling under the weight of electoral fraud and corruption scandals last year.

This time around, prosecutors who called for the 20-year sentence charged Berenson with terrorist collaboration. Arguing that she rented a four-story house in a Lima suburb for the guerrilla group, the prosecution said that while she was living there she provided cellular phones, pagers and other equipment to the rebels. They also said she served them meals and used fake journalistic credentials to gain entry to the Peruvian Congress in preparation for an attack on the building planned by the group. 'She was not an aimless woman who came to Peru as a tourist. She came to Peru expressly to collaborate with the MRTA,' said prosecutor Carlos Navas.

Berenson has maintained her innocence, claiming she came to Peru to study the country's history and culture. Later, she says, she began interviewing members of Congress for two articles she was planning to write on human rights and decentralization. According to Berenson, it was pure coincidence that after years of involvement in Latin American leftist politics she ended up living at an MRTA safe house where guerrillas engaged in target practice and stockpiled weapons'and that a photographer she used was the wife of the MRTA's second-in-command, Nestor Cerpa.

Presumed guilty

'[Prosecutors] have not been able to prove my guilt in spite of the advantages they have had and in spite of the lack of due process,' she told the court. 'There is no proof of my criminal responsibility.' Berenson added that Peruvian newspapers often referred to her as a terrorist. 'It's not exactly a situation where the presumption of innocence has been real.'

Berenson's views are well-known to the people of Peru, who remember her as an angry and defiant young woman shouting defensive statements about the MRTA when she was paraded before the press following her arrest six years ago.

Berenson introduced a more conciliatory note in her trial today, saying she understood she had made a mistake 'in acting so aggressive and angry during my public presentation in 1995.'

'If I offended anyone with my statements, I'm sorry,' she said. 'It was not the impression I intended to give.' Berenson said her behavior at the time was the result of having spent 40 days in a police cell next to a bullet-riddled MRTA member who was refused medical treatment.

For the prosecution, however, that comment carried little weight. According to Navas, Berenson had shown no remorse'and therefore should not receive any special consideration.

That could change if President-elect Alejandro Toledo decides to issue Berenson with a presidential pardon. Toledo, who takes office on July 28, said earlier this week that the American would not be given special treatment due to her nationality. However, the Associated Press reported today that a spokesman for Toledo said the issue might come up when the Peruvian president visits New York and Washington next week to seek economic aid.