Berenson: I'm a Political Prisoner

Associated Press -- 26 March 2001

LIMA, Peru - American Lori Berenson, who is facing a retrial in Peru after serving five years in jail for her alleged involvement with leftist guerrillas, says she is a political prisoner.

``I am innocent of what they are charging me with,'' Berenson, 31, told Panamericana television in an interview aired Sunday night. ``If they accuse me of thinking what I think, then yes, I am guilty.''

A secret military court convicted the New York City native of treason in 1996 and sentenced her to life in prison for allegedly helping the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, plot a thwarted takeover of Congress.

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 on lesser charges of ``terrorist collaboration.''

The new trial began last week and will resume Tuesday.

``I consider myself a political prisoner,'' Berenson said in Sunday's television interview.

The former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student declined to answer several questions that dealt directly with details of her case to avoid ``generating complications'' in her trial.

But she did discuss her a statement she made before television cameras before her sentencing in 1996, when she angrily expressed her sympathy for Peru's poor and shouted, ``There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA. It is a revolutionary movement.''

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

Berenson said Sunday that she was merely expressing her opinion, which has since been misinterpreted. ``The way I said it,'' she said. ``That stays with the people. I understand that.''

She contended that she was told to yell because there would be no microphone. She also said she was kept for days before the statement in a dirty cell with a prisoner suffering from several untended gunshot wounds.

Berenson was arrested with the wife of the top MRTA 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 as a historian by a different name after he had moved into the house.

Berenson maintained Sunday that she had only a vague knowledge of what the MRTA was before arriving in Peru and denied knowing that the people she was renting the house with were Tupac Amaru members.

Asked if she regretted ever coming to Peru, Berenson replied: ``I regret very much the pain it has caused my family. But do I regret coming to Peru? No, not at all.''

The interview was taped Friday at the Santa Monica women's prison in Lima. Berenson spoke in fluent Spanish and wore a red sweater that she had knit herself, according to her parents, who are in Peru for the trial.