Lori Berenson Grilled on El Salvador

Reuters -- 27 March 2001

by Jude Webber

LIMA, Peru - The lawyer for American Lori Berenson, being retried on charges she collaborated with leftist rebels, said on Tuesday the Peruvian court conducting the civilian trial was biased against her. "I have doubts about the court ... it has an evident predisposition against my client," Jose Sandoval told reporters after a judge grilled the 31-year-old New Yorker on day three of a public hearing that is expected to last another month.

Sandoval said there was no fresh evidence against her and he feared the court was reduced to dragging up her activist past in El Salvador and Nicaragua -- the subject of Tuesday's grilling by court president Marcos Ibazeta.

Berenson was jailed for life in 1996 by a military judge as a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Then-president Alberto Fujimori overturned her conviction last August and ordered a civilian trial. Prosecutors are now seeking a 20-year sentence for "terrorist collaboration", alleging she posed as a reporter to gain information for MRTA rebels who were planning to raid Congress and take hostages to exchange for rebel prisoners. Asked by Ibazeta if she condemned terrorism, Berenson said: "Yes." She has always said she is innocent of the charges against her and said in an interview on America Television on Sunday she was a "political prisoner".

Berenson acknowledged she had traveled to El Salvador while a student and had worked as a secretary for the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrilla group there, in Washington and in Nicaragua after dropping out of her social anthropology studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The United States provided military aid to El Salvador against FMLN rebels in a Cold War-era civil war that ended with a peace accord in 1992. Berenson said she gave secretarial support to Salvador Sanchez, an FMLN peace deal signatory and now a congressman, during the transition from war to peace, but played no direct role in the conflict and just did typing and translation.


Ibazeta, who had already noted Berenson appeared to have displayed considerable free will in leaving home at the age of 17, traveling to Central America and then giving up her studies, queried her assertion that her job was only clerical. "There's nothing robotic about you. You seem very intelligent," he said, raising a smile from the poised woman who, for the second session running, was allowed to testify from outside a concrete cell in the prison courtroom.

Defendants in terrorism trials in Peru are often behind bars. Berenson's parents slammed that practice last week, saying she was being treated like an animal in a zoo, presumed guilty. Polls show few Peruvians have any sympathy for Berenson and many believe she has delivered a defiant apology for the MRTA. "An apology means to exalt or publicly recognize subversive acts. She is giving her point of view -- opinions and ideas cannot be judged," Sandoval said. He believed there was "insufficient evidence to convict her" but public opinion was against her.

Berenson's trial resumes on Thursday when Ibazeta, who is running for the job of government human rights ombudsman, will quiz her on her arrival in Peru in 1994 in the company of a Panamanian, Pacifico Castrellon, also jailed as an MRTA rebel.

The pair -- Berenson says they were just friends -- rented what prosecutors allege became an MRTA training camp in a plush Lima suburb where police found weapons and uniforms after a shoot-out following Berenson's arrest in November 1995.