Berenson Testifies in Peruvian Court

Associated Press -- 22 March 2001

by Craig Mauro

LIMA, Peru - Lori Berenson, the 31-year-old New York native accused of collaborating with leftist guerrillas to seize Peru's Congress, was brought out of a concrete cell in an anti-terrorism court Thursday for direct examination by the prosecution.

The move came after a court officer read a summary of Tuesday's opening proceedings, in which Berenson complained to presiding Magistrate Marcos Ibazeta that being kept behind bars during the trial violated her right to a presumption of innocence.

Before Ibazeta's order that she be seated directly in front of the three-judge panel that will decide the case, Berenson sat on a wooden bench behind bars in the courtroom. The judge didn't specify whether Berenson would be seated behind bars when others are testifying.

Prosecutor Cesar Navas, who is seeking a 20-year sentence, started his questioning by reminding Berenson of the offer to confess to be eligible for a lighter sentence, and asked her to make a declaration.

``I am innocent of the charges against me,'' she responded.

Berenson appeared confident, cool-headed and at times defiant, as she replied in fluent Spanish to Navas' questions in the courtroom in the San Juan de Lurigancho men's prison.

A secret military court convicted Berenson of treason in 1996 and sentenced her to life in prison for plotting with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement - known by its Spanish acronym MRTA - in a thwarted takeover of Congress.

Peru's highest military court overturned the conviction in August, after years of pressure from the United States, and her case was reopened by prosecutors in civilian court on lesser charges of ``terrorist collaboration.''

Berenson was arrested with the wife of the top rebel leader on a bus in November 1995, hours before authorities raided the house that she had rented.

Fourteen rebels were captured after an 11-hour gun battle, including the group's second-ranking leader, Miguel Rincon, whom Berenson said she knew by a different name after he had moved into the house.

Berenson said she had interesting discussions with him about Peru's history and social problems. She moved into a separate apartment three months before the police raid.

Prosecutors say Berenson and the rebel leader's wife posed as journalists to gain entrance into the Congress to collect information to prepare for an attack.

Navas asked Berenson to explain why convicted rebel Lucinda Rojas Landa, who was wounded during the shootout, had told anti-terrorism police that Berenson served food, participated in meetings and socialized with the rebels.

``Lucinda Rojas Landa was badly wounded with five gunshots and it was in that condition that she was pressured by the anti-terrorism police,'' Berenson replied. ``They said she said a series of things that I don't believe she said, or at least that had anything to do with the truth,'' Berenson added.

Navas alleged that police found copies of rebel documents, including copies of Voz Rebelde, or ``Rebel Voice,'' the group's publication, with her handwritten notes in the margins.

Berenson denied ever seeing such documents. She and her lawyer, Jose Luis Sandoval, complained they were never shown the alleged evidence.

``I do not deny that I have a social mindset, a bit left-leaning, but that does not signify subversion, Mr. Prosecutor,'' she said. ``I never saw documents linked to the MRTA.''

The proceeding will resume Tuesday.