Lori Berenson describes January 96 press presentation

Reuters -- 7 May 2001

by Eduardo Orozco

LIMA, Peru - Jailed American Lori Berenson told the court retrying her on terrorist charges on Monday that she regretted an angry outburst shortly after her arrest in 1995 that convinced many Peruvians she was a rebel militant.

The 31-year-old New Yorker blamed the stress of five weeks' detention without trial at Peru's notorious anti-terrorist policy headquarters for her denial that the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) consisted of "criminal terrorists."

Those few minutes in front of local television cameras apparently constituted damning evidence for the hooded military judge who sentenced Berenson to life imprisonment in 1996 as a leader of the MRTA. They also alienated her from Peruvians weary of violence that killed 30,000 people from 1980 to the mid-1990s.

"If it is a crime to worry about the subhuman conditions in which the majority in this country lives, then I'd accept my sentence," Berenson shouted six years ago. She added that the MRTA contained "no criminal terrorists" but was "a revolutionary movement."

On Monday, she told the court: "It was a mistake to appear so aggressive. I did not express myself as I would have liked, mainly because of the stress of my imprisonment and the way I was treated (by the press)."

"If I could turn back the clock, I would do it differently," a composed Berenson told the open courtroom in a Lima jail after watching videos of her outburst.

Cites police advice

Berenson said she had shouted because a police officer had told her that journalists would not hear her otherwise and she had wanted to show compassion for Peruvians suffering in poverty.

Last year, Peru overturned Berenson's 1996 conviction, saying new evidence suggested that she had had links with the MRTA but was not a leader of it.

Rights groups called her conviction a parody of justice under then President Alberto Fujimori's hard-line rule. Berenson, a former human rights worker, has repeatedly said she is innocent of all the charges against her. She told Reuters in a weekend interview that she was mistreated while being detained before her first trial.

Berenson has said she saw nothing unusual in the Lima house she shared with a group of people subsequently convicted as MRTA rebels. Authorities said the residence was being used to stash terrorist arms ahead of a planned attack on Congress.

Less bloody than Peru's Maoist rebel group the Shining Path, the MRTA is best known for a 126-day hostage standoff at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima. Government commandos ended a siege of the building by storming it in 1997, killing all 14 rebels and freeing all but one of the 72 hostages.

Prosecutors want a 20-year sentence for Berenson if she is convicted of MRTA links. Her retrial continues on Thursday and is expected to end this month.