Lori Berenson's public trial in 9th week is winding down

Reuters -- 15 May 2001

by Tania Mellado

LIMA, Peru - The civilian retrial of American activist Lori Berenson on terrorism charges is entering its final stages and the court president said on Tuesday he hoped to reach a verdict at the end of May.

Prosecutors are seeking a 20-year prison term for the 31-year-old New Yorker, who is charged with collaboration with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA in Spanish. But court president Marcos Ibazeta told Reuters the prosecutor could, in his summing-up, ask for her to be convicted on the more serious charge of "illicit association" with terrorism which suggests closer links with the MRTA. "First we have to see if she is guilty," he said.

Berenson says she is innocent of all charges against her. However, before the three-judge panel can consider its verdict, the Supreme Court must rule on whether Ibazeta can continue with the trial. Berenson's lawyer has objected to him, saying he was discredited by being named as "part of the team" in a video taped by Peru's ex-spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos. Discovery of what investigators call the corrupt mafia that Montesinos ran in Peru's courts, Congress, media and military felled former President Alberto Fujimori last year. "We're waiting for the Supreme Court to uphold a resolution which says the challenge against me is inadmissible or simply to declare it invalid and take me off the case," Ibazeta said after the 23rd session of the trial in a courtroom in a Lima jail. "We're just waiting for the ruling and at the end of this month we will be reaching our verdict," Ibazeta added.

Berenson says she believes the trial has been unfair and "awful." She told Reuters in an interview this month, "they could give me 20, 25, 10 years, I really don't know".

"As far as I'm concerned she is a leader (of the MRTA)," the state attorney, Mario Cavagnaro, told Reuters. Peru's top military court last year overturned Berenson's 1996 conviction as an MRTA leader and ordered the civilian retrial. Ibazeta said that in the next session, on Thursday, more written testimony from people not present at trial would be presented and the prosecutor, state attorney and defense lawyer would then make their concluding statements. The prosecution will announce at that stage whether it is seeking a conviction on charge of terrorist collaboration or illicit association with terrorism, he added. Ibazeta said there would then be a recess of eight days, then the court would reconvene. Berenson would be allowed to make final remarks before the court would retire to consider its verdict -- which must be given within 24 hours.