Berenson Backers Place Hope in Toledo

Associated Press -- 21 June 2001

by Craig Mauro

LIMA, Peru - Lori Berenson's supporters are placing hope in President-elect Alejandro Toledo, but analysts say pardoning the 31-year-old American would be politically risky for a new leader who does not want to be perceived as soft on terrorism or as meddling with the courts.

A Toledo spokesman said he had no comment on Berenson's 20-year sentence or the possibility of a pardon for the New York native, who was convicted Wednesday of collaborating with leftist rebels.

But the aide said Toledo, who takes office July 28, expected the issue will come up during a visit to New York and Washington next week to seek economic aid. Rhoda Berenson, her mother, said rallies were planned in the two cities that will coincide with Toledo's visit.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat who serves the Berensons' district, said she will circulate a letter among her colleagues urging them to ask Peru's president for a pardon.

``When Peru announced it would retry Berenson last August, we hoped for an open and fair hearing. Instead, what she received was a public circus in which the verdict was a foregone conclusion,'' Maloney said.

``I am hopeful that the Peruvian president will recognize that Lori has already served 51/2 years in prison under very harsh circumstances and will pardon her,'' Maloney added. ``It is time for Lori to come home.''

Although the verdict was widely expected, the U.S. embassy in Lima acknowledged that Berenson received a public trial during which she was permitted to defend herself and confront her accusers.

The three magistrates judging her said they had found ``convincing evidence'' she helped the deadly Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, in a thwarted plot to seize Peru's Congress in 1995.

She was convicted of aided the rebels 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. Berenson acknowledged renting the house, but said she did not know her housemates were rebels.

In 1996, she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for treason in a secret military trial with barely any legal representation. That conviction was overturned last August and the new trial ordered.

With the new sentence, Berenson is to be released in November 2015 - counting time served - then expelled from Peru. She is appealing to Peru's Supreme Court.

If the Supreme Court does not overturn the verdict, Berenson's supporters hope Toledo will issue a pardon.

But Peruvian political analysts noted that Toledo does not want to be thought of being soft on terrorism or as interfering in the courts at a time when the country's fragile democracy is rebuilding institutions eroded by former President Alberto Fujimori , who used Peru's judiciary and Congress as extensions of his autocratic rule.

``There is the primary issue of fairness. Why Berenson and not all the other prisoners?'' said political analyst Mirko Lauer, referring to hundreds of others thought to be unjustly detained under Fujimori's anti-terrorism laws.

``Letting Berenson go would deliver a message that you are potentially soft on terrorism.''

Mabel Roncal, a 39-year-old executive, said she approved of Berenson's sentence.

``There were many deaths, many families, even many children who died because of those terrorists. I would like to know what she would think if she were in their shoes,'' Roncal said.

Berenson's supporters contend Fujimori's government had trumped up charges against Berenson to bolster its image as being tough on terrorism. They contend Fujimori's anti-terrorist legislation, drafted in 1992, is draconian and should be thrown out.

But many Peruvians say that although hundreds of innocent people were wrongly imprisoned under his policies, Berenson was not one of them.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker, refused to express an opinion about Berenson's guilt or innocence, but noted that ``the court rendered its verdict after a public trial, free of the most egregious flaws in the military trial.''

White House spokeswoman Mary Ellen Countryman said, ``We hope the appeals process moves forward expeditiously.''