Peru Gives Berenson 20 Years, She Appeals

Reuters -- 20 June 2001

by Missy Ryan

LIMA, Peru - A Peruvian court on Wednesday handed American Lori Berenson a 20-year jail sentence after finding her guilty of collaborating with an outlawed Marxist rebel group in a plot to attack Congress.

Berenson, who remained impassive during the four hours it took to read the verdict, immediately declared the sentence ''unjust'' and said she was innocent and was appealing.

The 31-year-old New Yorker had earlier made one final proclamation of innocence in a 45-minute speech to the court, saying: ``I'm no terrorist and I condemn what terrorism is.''

Peru's Supreme Court will now have the final say, although Berenson's defense is also pursuing the case in Latin America's top human rights court, based in Costa Rica.

``Convicting her of crimes of terrorism in respect of collaboration against the state, the jail sentence is 20 years, to end on Nov. 29, 2015,'' said the verdict, read by court official Javier Llaque.

The State Department said it sympathized with Berenson's family, but could not comment on the case. ``We hope the Peruvian Supreme court will look carefully at all the issues raised by Ms Berenson's defense attorney in the appeal he will file on her behalf,'' spokeswoman Susan Pittman said.

A guilty verdict and stiff sentence had been widely expected for a woman many Peruvians consider a ``gringa terrorista.'' The prosecution had demanded at least 20 years.

Berenson, who was arrested on Nov. 30, 1995, has already served more than five years, mostly in tough Andean jails.

Her father Mark tried to jump to his feet as the sentence was read out but was restrained by those around him. His wife Rhoda stared into her lap. They left the court swiftly.

``There is no justice in Peru,'' Mark Berenson said. Peru's incoming President-elect Alejandro Toledo, who travels to the United States next week, has vowed to respect the verdict.

Berenson was convicted in 1996 of being a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and was jailed for life. Peru overturned that conviction on appeal and last year granted her a civilian retrial.

Peruvians still have sharp memories of the car bombs, kidnappings and power cuts during leftist guerrilla wars on the state in the 1980s and early 1990s that caused 30,000 deaths and $25 billion in damages.


The sentence came at the end of a marathon session three months to the day since the retrial began.

Berenson was given an additional penalty of 180 days in jail and a $28,400 fine. The court ruled she should be expelled from Peru once she had served her time.

If the Supreme Court upholds the sentence, Berenson could request a transfer to a U.S. prison. She has always said she would not do this, because she considers herself innocent.

The court had earlier ruled that Berenson was no ``mere spectator'' of MRTA activities but someone who voluntarily collaborated, although it said she was not a militant rebel.

The lengthy ruling went through each detail of the 32 previous sessions to establish whether Berenson was acting on an MRTA plan when she traveled to Peru in 1994 and rented a house that turned out to be an MRTA camp, and whether she knew the true identity of the MRTA rebels she met.

At times -- such as Berenson's assertion she did not know who else lived in the house and never saw anything untoward -- the verdict said she was hiding behind ``inadequate excuses.''

Defense lawyer Jose Luis Sandoval said there had been no due process and Berenson's case was politically motivated.

``We're going to carry on fighting,'' he told reporters. ``Lori Berenson is obviously indignant.''

Sandoval said the disgraced justice system of ousted former President Alberto Fujimori and his fugitive spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos remained in place. ``I think Mr. Fujimori and Mr. Montesinos are celebrating tonight,'' he said.

Berenson, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student, traveled to Peru in late 1994 after stints in Central America -- including a spell working as a secretary for a guerrilla leader in El Salvador's peace process. She says she was in Peru for anthropology studies and to be a reporter.

``It's no crime to worry about the situation of the poor in the world,'' Berenson told the court earlier.