Berenson's Father Appeals to Peru

Associated Press -- 21 March 2001

by Craig Mauro

LIMA, Peru - One day after Lori Berenson proclaimed her innocence in court to charges she plotted with leftist guerrillas to seize Congress, the New York native's father pleaded her case Wednesday on national television.

``Lori is an accused terrorist, but she is not a terrorist. I know she is innocent. God knows she is innocent,'' Mark Berenson said through a translator on Panamericana's morning news program.

``A person must be presumed innocent. It is up to the government of Peru to prove her guilty,'' he said.

A secret military court convicted Berenson in 1996 and sentenced her to life in prison for allegedly helping the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, plot the thwarted Congress takeover.

But after years of pressure from the United States, Peru's highest military court overturned the conviction in August, leading to the new civilian trial, in which Berenson faces lesser charges of ``terrorist collaboration.''

Berenson's comments Tuesday were her first in a public forum in Peru since a pre-sentence declaration she made in 1996, when she angrily expressed her sympathy for Peru's poor and yelled, ``There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA. It is a revolutionary movement.''

For many Peruvians, weary from 15 years of guerrilla-fueled violence including car bombings, assassinations and kidnappings, the statement was tantamount to a confession.

Walter Gonzalez, a delivery man, fell back on an old Spanish proverb when asked his view of Berenson, saying: ``Tell me with whom you walk and I will tell you who you are.

``She was up to her neck with the MRTA,'' he said.

Peru's government hopes Berenson's public retrial will demonstrate judicial fairness and independence after reforms following the fall of former President Alberto Fujimori and his fugitive intelligence adviser Vladimiro Montesinos.

For years, they exercised tight control over the courts, stacking them with provisional judges who were quickly replaced when rulings were not in line with their wishes.

But Berenson's parents and legal advisers said they were shocked by the courtroom setup and procedures that she now faces.

She was ushered into a built-in cell. She had to ask for special permission from the presiding magistrate to consult with her lawyer during the proceedings and to declare her innocence.

New York attorney Tom Nooter, who represents the Berenson family, called the scene ``Kafkaesque.''

``It's not the fault of the Peruvian people, but I don't think they know what a fair trial means,'' Berenson's mother, Rhoda Berenson, told The Associated Press before going to visit her daughter Wednesday in the Santa Monica Women's prison.

In the United States' justice system, based on English common law, a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, the burden of proof is on the accuser and a jury decides the outcome.

Peru's justice system, like much of Latin America, is based on the Napoleonic Code, the body of French civil law enacted in 1804, in which there is no jury, but a panel of judges.

Under the Napoleonic Code, a person is presumed guilty if arrested by the state after an investigation. Although the presumption of innocence is written into Peruvian law, the practice more closely follows that French tradition.

``If there is evidence of guilt, the person must demonstrate he is innocent,'' said attorney Martin Belaunde, president of Peru's Bar Association. ``He isn't guilty yet, but he is in a middle ground. There is still a presumption of innocence, but it is a weakened presumption.''