Berenson's Parents Decry Verdict

Associated Press -- 21 June 2001

by Bill Cormier

LIMA, Peru - The parents of Lori Berenson denounced Peru's courts Thursday after their daughter, jailed in an Andean prison for five years, was convicted in a civilian retrial of collaborating with leftist guerrillas and sentenced to 20 years.

Peru touted the public trial of the 31-year-old New York native as an example of how its justice system has improved after years of authoritarian rule. But Mark and Rhoda Berenson said the verdict showed the courts were still as politicized as ever.

``I was expecting it because I have a strong feeling that nothing has changed in Peru with respect to the justice system that's a total sham,'' Mark Berenson said from Lima, speaking to ABC's Good Morning American on Thursday.

With the new sentence, Lori Berenson is to be released in November 2015 - counting time served - then expelled from Peru.

The former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student stood for nearly four hours Wednesday evening as the sentence was read in the drab prison courtroom. She sat only briefly, as the three magistrates said they found ``convincing evidence'' she had helped the deadly Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, in a thwarted plot to seize Peru's Congress in 1995.

Her father, restrained by an American rabbi after the verdict, shouted, ``No justice! No justice!''

Berenson was sentenced to life in prison in 1996 by a secret military tribunal on charges of treason. She was tried as a rebel leader.

After years of pressure from the United States, Peru's top military court overturned her conviction in August, allowing the new civilian trial on a lesser charge of ``terrorist collaboration.''

``I consider this an unjust sentence and I am innocent of the charges against me,'' said Berenson, asking that the sentence be struck down when lead magistrate Marcos Ibazeta gave her a chance to respond.

Earlier, in her closing statement, Berenson declared, ``I am not a terrorist. I condemn terrorism.'' She also denied being a member or collaborator of the rebel group.

Peru hoped the Berenson retrial would show how its justice system has improved since the ouster in November of President Alberto Fujimori, who declared emergency rule in the early 19990 and set up the tough military courts in his drive against the then-powerful leftist guerrillas.

Fujimori's suppression of the rebels sealed his popularity during his 10-year rule, and the insurgencies remain a painful memory for many Peruvians, who had little sympathy for Berenson.

Rhoda Berenson said the three judge panel had convicted her daughter in the non-jury retrial to show its toughness against terrorism.

``The popular thing to do, even in this new democracy, is to be very, very strong against terrorism. The Peruvian people don't care, to a certain extent, if innocent people are imprisoned, as long as they feel safe,'' she said.

``This country, unfortunately, while it is an emerging democracy, has no way of implementing fairness and justice to people,'' Mark Berenson said.

The Tupac Amaru took up arms in 1984, at a time when Peru was besieged by near-daily car bombings, assassinations and violence. Named for an Inca ruler who fought Spanish colonists in the 1730s, it has been blamed for about 200 deaths. It gained international attention for its four-month hostage siege at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima in 1997.

The prosecution - which had sought the maximum 20-year sentence - had said that Berenson aided the Tupac Amaru by renting a house that served as their hide-out and posing as a journalist to enter Congress to gather intelligence with a top rebel commander's wife. She was arrested in November of 1995.

Berenson has acknowledged renting the house, but said she did not know her housemates were rebels. She came to Peru in late 1994, after working as a secretary to a rebel leader during peace talks that ended El Salvador's civil war in 1992.

``Everything leads to the conclusion that the accused ... was not a mere spectator. Nor was she distant from what was occurring around her in relation to the activities of the MRTA,'' the verdict said.

Justice Minister Diego Garcia Sayan said earlier this week that the government would respect the verdict and that Berenson would serve out any sentence in Peru, so for now a presidential pardon seems unlikely.

President-elect Alejandro Toledo, who takes office July 28, is to travel next week to the United States in search of economic aid. His spokesman said he had no immediate comment on the case, but it could come up during his stops in New York and Washington.

``We have an appeal, the game isn't over, and it's a game. We go to supreme court of Peru and then back to Organization of American States,'' Mark Berenson said.