New Yorker Has Low Hopes for New Peru Trial

New York Times -- 20 May 2001

by Clifford Krauss

LIMA, Peru -- It is Sunday at the high-security women's prison in the grimy neighborhood of Chorrillos. Visitors bring corn on the cob, spicy rice dishes and stories from home to relatives and friends, many of whom have been convicted of terrorism. Sweet love songs play on radios and there are laughter and hugs in the courtyard.

It is a happy time for the prisoners, relatively speaking. And the most famous prisoner of all, Lori Berenson, is in an effusive mood, giggling about her daydreams.

"I think about walking by the ocean, everything to do with being free, even taking the New York City subway," Ms. Berenson said with a wide dreamy smile that made her look much younger than her 31 years. "I think about whether I'll have kids."

For the last five and a half years, this native New Yorker could only dream of such things. In 1996 she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison by a secret military antiterrorism court, accused of playing a leading role in a terrorist plot to take the entire Peruvian Congress hostage. The Peruvian press still characterizes her as a member of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, a rebel group known for bombing and kidnapping.

After years of pressure from the United States government for a new civilian trial, a tribunal that was widely believed to have taken orders from former President Alberto K. Fujimori gave in last year. A short time later, he fled Peru for Japan, to resign and escape corruption charges. Now Ms. Berenson has a second chance in a new trial on lesser charges, but she and her family say the three judges are prejudiced and under popular pressure to convict her again.

"I've had a lot of bad luck," Ms. Berenson said in the deadpan voice of someone who might be explaining why she missed an appointment. "I have 10,000 reasons not to feel good about anything. But when I look around and see how much people have suffered, been tortured, are never visited, I realize that I have had a privileged life."

Ms. Berenson appeared healthy today, except for the reddened, swollen fingers that she says began bothering her during her years spent in an unheated prison cell 12,000 feet up in the Andes.

She wore a fashionable blue cotton knit sweater brought to her by her mother, Rhoda, and she spoke of playing the guitar and reading Latin American fiction during her free time in prison, when she is not doing clean-up and kitchen duty.

Her jailers say her bright disposition is part of being a disciplined, hardened cadre of the Túpac Amaru. But she had another explanation: "I think if I wasn't cheery, I'd be miserable, and I don't know how people can last when they are miserable. Strangely enough, being in jail has gotten me more interested in Peruvian culture."

Ms. Berenson's life has been an odyssey of sharp, unexpected turns.

She is the daughter of two college professors. When she was a child and a teenager, her interests leaned heavily toward science and music. She attended public school in Manhattan and in junior high school had top roles in productions of "Jesus Christ Superstar" (she played Jesus), "Annie" and "Auntie Mame."

She was a straight-A student at the La Guardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts, and then went off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"She was every teacher's pet," her father, Mark Berenson, a retired statistics professor, said in an interview in Lima last week.

Her political involvement began with her work as a research assistant for an anthropology professor at M.I.T., studying immigration policy for Latin American refugees. She dropped out of M.I.T. in 1989, after three semesters, and traveled to Nicaragua and then to El Salvador. She became the private secretary of a top commander of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front during peace talks that ended the Salvadoran civil war.

"I would definitely, probably, say I am a leftist," she said in the prison courtyard. "I'm probably not the best example of someone with a coherent political point of view, but I believe there is too much inequality and that definitely has to change."

It was Ms. Berenson's involvement with the Salvadorans that forms a vital piece of the Peruvian government's case against her. How is it possible, judges and prosecutors have asked, that someone with her background in Central America could have rented a four- story house for nearly a year that was simultaneously used by the Túpac Amaru rebels as a terrorist base without suspecting what was going on.

And how is possible, they ask, that she did not know that the photographer she hired in Lima just happened to be the wife of a senior rebel leader. The prosecution contends that Ms. Berenson posed as a journalist covering the Congress to case the building for an attack she knew was coming. Ms. Berenson says she planned to write for two small American journals and never knew the true identities of her photographer or the people with whom she shared the house.

"Instead of watching that your tenants did not destroy your home, you allowed them to cover the windows with wood and nails and to bring strangers to spend the night there," Presiding Judge Marcos Ibazeta said to her during this trial. "Under those circumstances, it is impossible for you to maintain that you never saw or heard anything."

Ms. Berenson said she never went up to the fourth floor of the house where about 20 members of the group were training and were storing a large stock of dynamite and other ammunition.

"I recognize it is a coincidence that makes me less believable," she said today. She added that she had no intention of condemning the rebel group or of asking to be moved from her cellblock, which is inhabited by the group's members, since that would mean she could be placed among people who have collaborated with the police.

"I really don't like to deal with snitches," she said. "There is a moral question there." She added in the interview that if she had known what the group was planning she would have ended her involvement with the house, but not called the police.

The prosecution case against Ms. Berenson is predominately based on the same evidence employed by the secret military antiterrorism court that tried her in 1996. The judges then wore hoods, and her lawyer did not have the right to cross-examine witnesses. Critics say it is a case that an American jury well might conclude is riddled with the holes that come from sloppy police work six years ago.

The principal witness against Ms. Berenson is Pacífico Castrellón, a Panamanian architect who rented the house with her, who was also sentenced to a long prison term by a military court, and who is about to be retried on terrorism charges. He said she introduced him to Néstor Cerpa Cartolini, a top leader of the group, in Quito, Ecuador, before she and Mr. Castrellón traveled to Peru together. Mr. Castrellón said the rebels paid for their rent, food and car.

Mr. Castrellón's story seems to have some gaps. He has painted himself as a reluctant and frightened collaborator with the rebels, afraid to run away because he believed that it would put his family in danger. But the rebels trusted him enough to give him his own apartment, where his job was to build a model of the Congress and to draw a detailed map of the streets around the building.

In a summary of his 1995 testimony to the police, Mr. Castrellón reportedly said that Ms. Berenson entered the fourth floor of the house hooded to serve food to the terrorists. But in recent testimony, at the new trial, he contradicted his earlier testimony on that point.

The other vital piece of the prosecution's case is a diagram of the congressional seating plan allegedly drawn by Ms. Berenson as well as corrections on several guerrilla documents that the prosecution says were scrawled by her. Ms. Berenson's lawyer questions the impartiality of the experts who determined that it was her handwriting, since they are all police officials. Ms. Berenson suggested in court that any markings that appear to be hers are forgeries.

She said that if she is convicted, in the next few weeks, she believes that human rights groups will finally come to her aid since the evidence offered against her in court has been so thin. "I doubt I will be spending 15 more years in jail," she said.

As for the future, Ms. Berenson said she has no interest in writing a book about her case. "I probably haven't had a normal life so people would have trouble understanding it," she said, "and I would have trouble explaining it."