Peru Appeal Seen Likely to Uphold Berenson Verdict

Reuters -- 21 June 2001

by Missy Ryan

LIMA, Peru - Peru's Supreme Court is likely to uphold a lower court's 20-year prison sentence imposed on American Lori Berenson for collaborating with Marxist rebels, legal analysts said on Thursday.

A three-judge panel convicted the 31-year-old New Yorker late on Wednesday of aiding the leftist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) in planning an attack on Congress and ordered her jailed until 2015, counting time served.

``Personally I think the verdict will be confirmed; it would be difficult for the court to modify the sentence,'' Eduardo Dargent of the Andean Commission of Jurists told Reuters.

The defense said after a marathon four-hour reading of Berenson's sentence that it would appeal the verdict, which it said was the fruit of an unfair trial, swayed by a negative public view of Berenson and political manipulation.

The Supreme Court appeal is expected to take three to four months at which time the court can confirm the sentence, reduce it or acquit her but not increase the sentence.

Berenson's 20 year sentence was the minimum for the crime -- the maximum would have been life.

Berenson has already spent more than five years in Peruvian jails since her first conviction in a 1996 military trial. That verdict was overturned last year and the retrial ordered.

The Supreme Court will not hold a new trial but review the appeals of the defense and prosecution, which also appealed, protesting that Berenson was a full member of the MRTA and seeking for her to be convicted as such.

During the trial, the Supreme Court threw out an attempt by Berenson's lawyer to have the presiding judge removed, but some Supreme Court members have since been changed.

If the sentence is upheld, Berenson's last resort is to appeal to the region's top human rights court. The case is already before the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, whose rulings are non-binding.

If Peru did not accept any Commission decision, the case would go to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, which could order Peru to hold a retrial or to free Berenson, court official Javier Llaque said.

Berenson was convicted of links with the MRTA, for whom she rented a safe house in a Lima suburb, but was cleared of participation in ``indoctrination'' sessions with the Marxist group. Berenson admits some ideological sympathies with the group but insists she is innocent of all charges against her.

Her father, Mark Berenson, said after the verdict, ``There is no justice in Peru.''

Political Trial?

``The defense's strategy will now be to criticize political interference in the trial,'' Dargent added. ``But I don't think it was a political trial.''

Peruvians have vivid memories of the car bombs, blackouts and kidnappings during the wars waged by the MRTA and the larger Shining Path group in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Javier Valle Riesta, a constitutional expert and former prime minister, said the case had been influenced by fears from the government and court of being labeled protectors of such ''terrorism.'' Ousted ex-President Alberto Fujimori is credited with stamping out rebel violence in his hard-line 10-year rule.

Fujimori's fugitive spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos allegedly manipulated Peru's courts and other organs of state.

Valle Riesta, too, said Berenson's chances of being freed after the Supreme Court deliberation were slim.

``I think the sentence will be confirmed,'' he said.

``There's going to be strong U.S. pressure to get the sentence reduced and pressure from public opinion here so that it's maintained,'' Dargent said. ``We'll see who wins out.''

The State Department said it hoped the Supreme Court would ''look carefully'' at all the issues raised by the defense.

``We understand she has appealed. We hope the appeals process proceeds expeditiously,'' U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Mary Ellen Countryman said on Thursday.