Berenson confident about being freed before 2015

Reuters -- 25 June 2001

by Missy Ryan

LIMA, Peru - American Lori Berenson, sentenced last week to 20 years in jail for aiding a Peruvian rebel group, said she is confident she will be freed before her 2015 release date despite an "insane" trial.

"My first reaction was 'What an outrage,'" Berenson told Reuters in a weekend interview in a courtyard in a Lima's top security jail.

In 1996, she was convicted of being a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and sentenced to life in prison. That verdict was thrown out last year and a civilian retrial ordered.

Then on June 20, a special anti-terrorism court ruled the 31-year-old New Yorker helped rebels plan an attack on Congress and ordered her jailed until November 29, 2015, or two weeks after her 46th birthday. The three-judge panel fell short of convicting her as a full MRTA "militant."

Still, Berenson is confident she will be out much earlier.

"This was not a fair trial. It's all based on hearsay and I think that's insane," said the bespectacled, petite Berenson, dressed in a wool sweater and turtleneck on a chilly winter afternoon.

Speaking in low, even tones, the former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student and social activist hardly resembled the aggressive, wild-eyed woman presented to the media in 1996 and dubbed a "gringa terrorista." Gringo is a derogatory term for Americans.

Around her neck Berenson -- who has said from the start she may hold leftist ideals but is no terrorist -- wore a necklace, one of whose charms was a tiny carved, clenched fist.

A handful of fellow prisoners -- carefully groomed women in jeans and sweaters -- knitted or chatted in the courtroom where clothes dried on lines by giant concrete wash bins. One woman sold snacks and stuffed animals at a nearby table.

"I was not expecting 20 years. I thought they weren't going to use the anti-terrorism laws," said Berenson, referring to Peru's set of special laws for "terrorism" cases. She had expected a sentence of 15 to 18 years, she added.

Berenson's first two years in jail were spent at the freezing Yanamayo prison 12,700 feet (3,870 metres) above sea level, but because of ailments like swollen joints and stomach problems, she was moved out of the Andean prison to Arequipa in 1998 and to Lima in 2000.

Her parents say her eyesight was permanently damaged by dimly lit jails but Berenson appeared healthy as she conversed with fellow inmates in the pastel-colored courtyard.

Not a 'monster'

Berenson said she is still dedicated to social justice and feels sympathy for fellow prisoners. About 30 others in her prison were jailed for MRTA links, she said.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Peru was wracked by car bombs, kidnapping and blackouts in wars waged by the MRTA and the larger Shining Path rebel group. The MRTA is best known for the 1996-1997 126-day hostage crisis in the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima.

"I'm not saying (the prison) is filled with heroes but people aren't as guilty as they seem. They didn't take up arms to cause any harm," she said.

Berenson said widely negative public opinion -- most Peruvians see her as icy and calculating -- had shaped the trial to her disadvantage.

According to judicial authorities, Berenson could ask to serve the rest of her sentence in the United States. But she said she would not do so.

"I'm not a criminal and I wouldn't give the Peruvian government the pleasure of thinking I accepted being a criminal," she said.

Court President Marcos Ibazeta told Reuters last week the three-judge panel had nearly given Berenson 30 years in jail.

Berenson said she would "certainly" get out of jail before 2015. "I think society is going to start looking at this issue differently," she said.

"I'm not the monster they make me out to be. That has to come out and it may take a while but it will come out before 2015," she added.