Peru Quizzes Berenson on Activism

Associated Press -- 27 March 2001

by Rick Vecchio

LIMA, Peru - Lori Berenson, the American on trial for alleged collaboration with leftist guerrillas in Peru, insisted Tuesday that she worked only as a secretary - and not a military aide - to a top Salvadoran guerrilla leader years ago.

Berenson, 31, said she was personal assistant to Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a commander of El Salvador's former Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN.

``We are concluding that you were with a person who acted in the military wing of the Farabundo Marti and that he acted in the political wing,'' said presiding magistrate Marcos Ibazeta, grilling Berenson about her role with the FMLN.

Berenson said she was involved solely in the peace talks that ended El Salvador's civil war in 1992. She pointed out that the ex-guerrilla is now a congressman, who goes by his real name, Leonel Gonzalez.

``I don't know where you are getting the idea that I worked in the military wing,'' she said. ``I did no work related to that.''

In San Salvador last week, Gonzalez confirmed that Berenson was his personal secretary and told The Associated Press that Berenson ``never had any relationship with our military structures.''

A secret Peruvian military court convicted Berenson of treason in 1996 and sentenced her to life in prison for allegedly helping Peru's Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement plan 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 that began last week on the lesser charges of ``terrorist collaboration.''

Prosecutors allege she rented a house in 1995 as a hide-out for the Tupac Amaru rebels and collected information with the wife of the group's top commander for a planned attack on Congress.

Berenson denies the charges and maintains she did not know her housemates were rebels.

During Berenson's cross-examination Tuesday, Ibazeta asked the former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student about her decision to drop out of school in the late 1980s to devote herself to a U.S. movement that supported El Salvador's leftist rebels.

She said she believed the Salvadoran guerrilla movement was ``legitimate in that there was no other way to change what for them was unjust.''

Her lawyer, Jose Luis Sandoval, who has argued that Berenson was duped by the Tupac Amaru guerrillas, said Tuesday that the court was trying to convict her for her political ideals.

``Obviously, ideas, opinions and beliefs cannot stand as criminal evidence for a trial,'' he said after Tuesday's proceedings. ``Her opinions should not be evidence for this trial, but they're clearly trying to use them that way.''

During opening testimony last week, Berenson accused authorities of manufacturing evidence, forcing witnesses to testify against her, and politically manipulating her case.