Peru Spy Chief Masterminded Retrial

Associated Press -- 10 March 2001

by Rick Vecchio

LIMA, Peru - Peru's former spy chief had planned a military court's decision to overturn a New York woman's life sentence for terrorism two years in advance, and he even discussed getting her a pardon, a secretly taped video shows.

The video, played to Congress late Friday, reveals how Lori Berenson's case was manipulated for political ends from the start by former President Alberto Fujimori, and his powerful spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos, Berenson's parents said Saturday.

Berenson, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student, was sentenced to life in prison in 1996 by a Peruvian military court on charges of treason for helping the leftist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement plan a thwarted takeover of Congress.

But after years of pressure from the United States, Peru's top military court overturned her conviction in August, granting her a new trial for a lesser charge of ``terrorist collaboration'' by a civilian court. The trial is set to begin March 20.

The military court ruled that new evidence showed she was not a leader of the rebel group, a necessary legal element to make the treason charge stick.

Berenson's defenders charge that Fujimori, whose decade-long autocratic rule ended in November, used Berenson's case to prove he was tough on terrorism.

The tape shows Montesinos and then-Foreign Minister Eduardo Ferrero in January 1998 discussing how to handle Berenson's case to appease U.S. officials and avert criticism that her trial by a secret military court denied her due process.

Montesinos, who ran Peru's national intelligence service, said the military court ruling could be voided and the case handed to the civilian court. He suggested Berenson receive a sentence of 10 or 15 years.

Later in the tape, he mentioned the possibility of Berenson getting a presidential pardon after a few more years in prison.

``I used to joke that if Lori got an extra piece of bread it was because Fujimori and Montesinos approved it,'' said Berenson's mother, Rhoda Berenson, by telephone from New York. ``It's not a joke. They had control over everything that happened to her.''

Berenson's lawyer was not immediately available for comment.

Peru's interim President Valentin Paniagua reiterated last week that Berenson's trial would be fair and open. Prosecutors have called for a 20-year sentence for her.

``The international human rights community keeps telling us that Lori can't get a fair trial in these courts and we don't understand why the present government would go ahead with such trials under these conditions,'' Rhoda Berenson said.

Montesinos is thought to have left the country as Fujimori's regime collapsed amid a corruption scandal. Fujimori fled to Japan.

Montesinos left behind a collection of covertly taped videos of his meetings, documenting bribes, influence peddling and subversion of Peru's media, the armed forces, Congress and the courts.

Berenson, who is in a women's prison in Lima, denies she was involved in the Congress takeover plot. Police said the plan was foiled by Berenson's arrest and a raid on a rebel safe house where she admittedly lived for a time in 1995.

Berenson maintains she never knew her former housemates were members of the rebel group.