American challenges Peruvian court's role

Miami Herald -- 21 March 2001

by Kevin G. Hall

LIMA, Peru - New Yorker Lori Berenson interrupted the beginning of her subversion trial Tuesday to question the court's legitimacy and to declare herself innocent of charges that she collaborated with a terrorist group.

``I am innocent of all the accusations that have been made against me,'' Berenson told a three-judge civilian court from behind the bars of a zoo-like cage at Lurigancho men's prison outside Lima.

A secret military court convicted Berenson of treason and sentenced her to life in prison on Jan. 11, 1996, after she was declared a leader of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, the smaller of two guerrilla groups that were trying to topple Peru's government.


The conviction, by a court in which the judges wore hooded robes and the defense had no access to evidence, was annulled last August after former President Alberto Fujimori's government said it had found ``new evidence'' that Berenson was not a terrorist leader. Her case was sent to the civilian court to be retried on lesser charges of collaboration with terrorists. Prosecutors on Tuesday asked the judges to hand down a 20-year sentence.

Berenson complained that being caged for her trial ``violates the presumption of innocence,'' but Judge Marcos Ibazeta shot back that she was being tried under Peru's rules. ``We cannot discriminate because it would violate the principal of equality in our country,'' he said.


Defendants in Peru and other nations whose legal systems are based on France's Napoleonic code do not enjoy the same presumption of innocence as defendants in the United States and other nations whose laws are derived from English precedents.

Berenson attracted international attention when she was paraded in front of the press before her military trial and defiantly shouted that the Túpac Amaru were not terrorists but revolutionaries.

On Tuesday, Berenson was more subdued but equally defiant. She wore a long paisley skirt, a white shirt, dangling white fish earrings and simple black shoes.

She had no reaction as the charges were read against her, looking occasionally in the direction of her parents, college professors Mark and Rhoda Berenson, who were seated in the gallery.

Suspects in Peru usually do not take the microphone, but Berenson interrupted the proceedings to accuse former President Fujimori of using her prosecution to appear tough on terrorism.

``I think it is known by everyone that my case was utilized politically by the prior government of Mr. Fujimori. From when I was detained, I was named on every occasion as a smoke screen,'' she said, calling her retrial political.

Risking the wrath of the judges, two men and a woman who will decide her fate, Berenson protested that the trial was even being held. ``The laws under which I am judged are from the previous government. They are laws that were declared under a state of emergency,'' Berenson said, noting the laws have been criticized on human rights grounds.