Terror Trial Defendant Stands Firm

Associated Press -- 7 May 2001

by Craig Mauro

LIMA, Peru - Lori Berenson, the American on trial on terrorism charges, recognizes her demeanor and uncompromising attitude have hurt her chances of winning acquittal but says she is willing to pay the price.

``If there were an easy way out I might take it, but at this point there is no easy way without compromising my principles,'' the 31-year-old New Yorker said in an interview with The Associated Press.

``I might be in here for a while. It's OK. I'll have to deal with that,'' she said Sunday, glancing around the austere concrete courtyard of the maximum-security Santa Monica prison in Lima, where other inmates chatted with relatives and friends on visitors day.

Berenson has served five years of a life sentence for treason handed down by a secret military tribunal in 1996. She was convicted of renting a house used by leftist guerrillas as a hide-out and for allegedly plotting to take over Peru's Congress to exchange hostages for jailed rebels.

That was overturned last year, and Berenson is six weeks into a retrial by a civilian court on the lesser charges of ``terrorist collaboration.'' The prosecution is seeking a 20-year prison sentence.

Berenson brushed off the view, held by many Peruvians, that she has been insolent during her trial, blaming the perception on the country's macho society and its negative view of strong women.

Many Peruvians consider Berenson's behavior in court to be aloof, obstinate and at times combative. During testimony, she has criticized Peru's legal system, suggested police planted evidence against her and stood unflinching as judges grilled her.

On Monday, Berenson, looking like a graduate student in wire-rimmed glasses and black turtleneck sweater, rolled her eyes as the court reviewed old news reports of her arrest and a January 1996 declaration in which she defended the guerrillas as ``a revolutionary movement.''

Berenson recognizes her refusal to publicly turn on the rebel group she is accused of helping has hurt her chances of acquittal, but she said she has no other option.

``I'm not going to say I did something I didn't do and condemn somebody that I am not in the position to condemn,'' she said.

Pointing to what she called biased judges, antiquated terrorism laws and a public anxious for a conviction, Berenson views her current trial as an ``absurd'' political show that will only lead to a guilty verdict.

``The legal elements are not what are being weighed,'' she said. ``It's so ridiculous, it gets humorous at times. But I really can't do anything about it. Everyone knows what's going to happen.''

Berenson adamantly proclaimed her innocence, saying she had no idea she was surrounded for a year by rebels of the Marxist-inspired Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA. But she does acknowledge a certain ``solidarity'' with convicted guerrillas whom she has lived with under harsh prison conditions.

As the trial winds down, with a verdict expected within a few weeks, Berenson's defense attorneys appear focused on laying the grounds for an appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

That commission, a legal arm of the Organization of American States, has already condemned Peru's anti-terrorism courts as unfair.

Peru's legal system does not have jury trials, and verdicts are decided by judges who also have the right to cross-examine defendants and witnesses.

Last week, Berenson's attorney Jose Sandoval asked presiding judge Marcos Ibazeta to remove himself from the case, accusing him of being biased against Berenson and acting more like a prosecutor than a judge. The three-judge panel denied the motion, ruling the deadline for such a measure had long passed.

Berenson accused Ibazeta of grandstanding for the news media and of being a lackey of ex-President Alberto Fujimori's government.

``I'm being tried by Fujimori's laws and by his right-hand judges,'' Berenson said, exhibiting the same mixture of steely defiance and disbelief she has shown through much of the trial.

Some Peruvians, who might concede her first trial was a sham, say Berenson has done little to help herself during the retrial, mainly by refusing to condemn the guerrilla movement.

``Everything seems to indicate that she was involved with the group,'' said Martin Belaunde, president of the Lima Bar Association, who has followed the case. ``She's trying to deny that, but the facts are so overwhelming that I don't think she can deny them in a coherent way.''

The Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, while smaller and far less deadly than Peru's Maoist Shining Path insurgency, is blamed for some 200 deaths since the early 1980s. The group, now all but defeated, used kidnapping, extortion and collecting protection money from narcotics traffickers to finance its operations. It is best known for its four-month hostage siege at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima in 1997.

Berenson said she condemns terrorist violence, but added that ``if the MRTA has committed violent acts, they have to explain those acts themselves. I'm not going to do it.''

In the meantime, ``the way I look at it, I've got no way out,'' she said. ``I'm just waiting for this to end.''