Peru delays Berenson retrial U.S. woman gets a chance to challenge life sentence

MSNBC -- 5 March 2001


LIMA, Peru - Peru's civilian retrial of Lori Berenson, a U.S. woman facing 20 years in prison on charges she collaborated with a Marxist rebel group's foiled attack on Congress, will begin on March 20, two weeks later than first announced, the government said on Monday.

"I ESTIMATE the trial will last four to six weeks," said Javier Llaque, a senior official at the anti-terrorism court that will conduct the trial. Berenson will be tried by a three-judge panel as Peru does not have a jury system.

In 1996, military judges sentenced Berenson, a 31-year-old New Yorker, to life in prison as a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, which police said had planned to take over Congress. Berenson has always said she is innocent.

Ex-President Alberto Fujimori surprisingly overturned Berenson's sentence last year and ordered a civilian retrial amid criticisms from Washington and rights groups that the sentence from hooded judges had been a travesty of justice.

State prosecutors are demanding a 20-year sentence for a lesser charge of "terrorist collaboration." Justice Minister Diego Garcia Sayan said last week that the trial would start on Thursday, March 8. But ministry sources said later that date was not official. Court officials cited administrative reasons for the two-week delay.

Berenson was one of thousands of people arrested in the 1990s under draconian anti-terrorist laws -- allowing hooded judges to hear trials through one-way mirrors -- during a crackdown by the hard-line Fujimori on leftist guerrillas.

Berenson was kept for the first three years in a wind-swept, high-security Andean prison where she was dogged by poor eyesight and poor circulation caused by the high altitude. She is now at a top security jail for women in Lima.


In the last three years, the government has freed more than 500 Peruvians found to have been convicted of trumped-up charges -- often in summary military trials -- during wars with guerrillas in which more than 30,000 people died over two decades.

Congress fired Fujimori last November amid spiraling corruption scandals. Interim President Valentin Paniagua has vowed not to interfere in the trial, which will put the spotlight on the country's heavily criticized justice system.

Justice authorities are setting up a special court at Lima's San Juan de Lurigancho prison where large TV monitors and extra seats will be set up to prepare for dozens of reporters and law students expected to attend the trial.

Mark and Rhoda Berenson, the parents of Lori Berenson, have said that their daughter will not get a fair trial in Peru, where courts are seen as corrupt and politically influenced.

Courts have insisted that Berenson will get a fair hearing, although most Peruvians, having suffered through fierce guerrilla wars in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have no sympathy with someone they see as an idealist mixed up with rebels.

"This court has no prejudice against Berenson," said Llaque, sitting by the 3,000 pages of Berenson case archives in a cramped office in downtown Lima. If found guilty, Berenson may appeal to Peru's Supreme Court -- a process that could take some four to five months.

MRTA rebels are best known for taking hundreds of VIPs hostage at the Japanese ambassador's home in Lima a year after Berenson's capture. The army raided the building after a four-month siege and all 14 rebels and one hostage were killed.