Peru gives Berenson 20 years in retrial

Chicago Tribune -- 21 June 2001

by Patrice M. Jones

Lori Berenson, the 31-year-old American imprisoned in Peru since 1996 for terrorism, was convicted again in a retrial Wednesday, dashing the hopes of her parents and others who had championed her case.

Berenson, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for collaborating with leftist guerrillas in a failed plot to seize Peru's Congress, was cleared of more serious charges that she was an active rebel militant. The court said she would not be released until Nov. 29, 2015, a sentence that includes the five years she has already served.

In a statement before the verdict, Berenson sternly told the court, "I am no terrorist and I condemn what terrorism is." But from the beginning, the three-month trial had unraveled like a tragic play in which everyone thought they already knew the ending.

No matter how much her lawyer argued, Berenson, a former student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, could not shake the image of her defiant speech on Peruvian television shortly before her 1996 conviction.

In that incident, broadcast repeatedly, Berenson made a screaming declaration in defense of the rebels of the Marxist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement who plotted to take over Congress and seize hostages. She said the group has "no criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement," a statement that has been taken by many Peruvians to mean she is guilty.

Long battle

But Berenson and her parents, two retired professors, have maintained that Berenson was being tried for her beliefs and not for her actions. Mark Berenson and his wife, Rhoda, who both attended the hearing, have fought a long battle to free their daughter.

Berenson, who calls herself a prisoner of conscience, has admitted sympathy for the Tupac Amaru's cause but said she is innocent of participating in any terrorist acts. Her family has vowed to appeal.

A linchpin in her trial was Berenson's refusal to condemn the rebels, a fact that hardened the three judges reviewing the case and many Peruvians who remember years of bloody guerrilla insurgencies that killed 30,000 people. The Tupac Amaru rebels are blamed for 200 of those deaths since they took up arms in 1984.

"According to Peruvian public opinion, this whole retrial was only held because of pressure from the U.S.," said Joanna Drzewienieki, a Lima political analyst.

"Lori Berenson certainly has not done anything during the trial to help herself," Drzewienieki added. "To help herself in Peru, she would have had to say that the Tupac Amaru is a very bad organization, but she did not do that. Everybody thinks she is guilty."

During her first trial, in which she received a life sentence for treason and was called a rebel leader, Berenson faced hooded judges in a secret military court and her lawyer was not allowed to cross-examine witnesses.

The trial was viewed internationally as grossly unfair. After much U.S. pressure, her conviction was overturned and she was granted a civilian trial last year.

Many U.S. lawmakers and former President Bill Clinton have championed Berenson's case. But human-rights groups, particularly those in Peru, have kept their distance.

Many commented privately that they do not want Berenson to become the cause celebre of those wrongly accused of terrorism because many believe the evidence points to her probable involvement with the rebel group.

In her second trial, prosecutors presented essentially the same evidence against her. Prosecutors said Berenson posed as a journalist to inspect the security system at the Congress to plan the seizure.

Berenson said she was in Lima as a freelance journalist working for two U.S. journals.

On Wednesday, she again maintained her innocence and said the charges against her were based on testimony by a fellow detainee who was trying to be freed at her expense.

She also apologized for the 1996 statement she made regarding the rebels.

"I am aware how that image and those statements were manipulated to create a monster larger than life, so that later I personified 20 years of insurgent and state violence," she told the court.

Defender of leftist causes

The native New Yorker has a long history of involvement in leftist causes and was arrested along with the wife of a Tupac Amaru leader in 1995.

A house Berenson was renting was later determined to be a staging ground for the rebels, and after a bloody gun battle with guerrillas holed up inside, police found a large supply of explosives and weapons.

She said she had moved out of the rented house three months before her arrest and did not know her new acquaintances were rebels or that plans were under way to attack Congress.

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

In 1996, the Tupac Amaru, following a similar script to that of the planned Congress raid, seized the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima and held hostages for 126 days. As part of a swap for hostages, the rebels requested Berenson's release, among others.

Berenson's future is still an open question. Peruvian President-elect Alejandro Toledo could eventually pardon Berenson. Already scores of other Peruvians found to have been wrongly imprisoned under the strict anti-terrorism laws have been released.

But before the court's decision, Peru's Justice Minister Diego Garcia Sayan said Wednesday that the government would respect any verdict and that Berenson should serve out any sentence in Peru.

According to surveys, most Peruvians believe Berenson will be eventually released because of U.S. pressure.