Berenson Acknowledges Family's Pain

Associated Press -- 22 June 2001

by Rick Vecchio

LIMA, Peru - Speaking from prison, New Yorker Lori Berenson said standing up for her principles has taken a devastating toll on her and her family - but she expects to be freed and ultimately vindicated.

``I was really totally appalled when they read the sentence,'' Berenson told The Associated Press in exclusive comments Thursday.

``Unfortunately, I really couldn't show it, basically because I was afraid they would misinterpret any reaction I would have.''

Berenson, sentenced Wednesday to 20 years in prison for ``terrorist collaboration,'' was not allowed face-to-face interviews with the media. But she was able to respond on tape to written questions delivered to her from the AP. Her mother, Rhoda, confirmed it was her daughter's voice.

``What is positive about this trial is the fact I could actually say the truth, not only about me, but about what I feel about Peru, what I feel about the situation here,'' Berenson said on the tape.

In a previous trial, in 1996, a secret military court convicted and sentenced Berenson to life in prison for allegedly aiding the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, in a thwarted plot to seize Peru's Congress. The conviction was overturned last August, leading to the new civilian trial.

At the time of the first trial, a scowling Berenson refused to condemn the MRTA, which she called a ``revolutionary movement.'' The statement convinced many Peruvians she was guilty.

But the 31-year-old said she was convicted for her beliefs, not her actions. Berenson, who describes herself as a prisoner of conscience, said authorities have unfairly portrayed her concern for social justice for the poor as a terrorist agenda.

``I'm being sentenced because I didn't go back on my beliefs,'' Berenson said, ``because I didn't condemn anyone, because I am condemning the system, because I am condemning human rights violations and a government that totally violated human fundamental rights, economic rights and was totally corrupt.''

Her parents have lobbied intensely for her freedom, attending every session of her three-month civilian retrial.

Her father, Mark, said Thursday that watching his daughter being led out of court after sentencing was one of the saddest moments of his life. ``My heart was ripped apart when she turned around to leave and I wasn't able to take her home with me,'' he said.

Berenson said her parents' anguish was one of the hardest things for her to face. ``To me, the tremendous cost is the fact that I see how this whole situation has, on the one hand, really united my family, but on the other, has really destroyed them.''

She said her latest conviction was based on the same strict anti-terrorism laws decreed by former President Alberto Fujimori in 1992 during a state of emergency. Human rights groups roundly criticized those laws, saying they led to torture and the wrongful imprisonment of hundreds of innocent people.

Berenson's supporters contend that Fujimori's government trumped up charges against her to bolster its image as being tough on terrorism. Fujimori has since fled to Japan amid a mounting corruption scandal. Berenson's supporters are holding out hope that President-elect Alejandro Toledo will pardon her.

But Peruvian political analysts note that Toledo doesn't want to be thought of as being soft on terrorism or as interfering with the courts at a time when the fragile democracy is rebuilding institutions eroded by the autocratic Fujimori.

``There is the primary issue of fairness. Why Berenson and not all the other prisoners?'' said political analyst Mirko Lauer, referring to thousands of people convicted under Fujimori's anti-terrorism laws.

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

Berenson expressed confidence that she would be freed on appeal, either by Peru's Supreme Court or by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

John Hamilton, the U.S. ambassador to Peru, said Thursday that if Berenson fails to win an appeal, she would have the option of serving out her time in the United States under a prisoner transfer treaty between the two countries.

But Berenson said: ``I don't want a transfer. I want justice. I think that it's very important that there be justice. I'm no criminal.''