Berenson appeal review extended

Reuters -- 11 February 2002

LIMA, Peru - Peru's Supreme Court has extended its study of the appeal of Lori Berenson, a U.S. woman jailed for 20 years on terrorism charges, and now has 15 more working days to rule, a court official said Monday.

A ruling from Peru's top appeals court had been expected Tuesday, the end of an initial 15-day period which began after it heard Berenson's appeal on Jan. 22. But the extension could push a decision back to April, the New Yorker's lawyer said.

The five-judge panel has four options: it can confirm the 32-year-old's sentence; reduce it; throw it out and order a retrial; or free her. It cannot increase the sentence. "(The period) has been extended by 15 days," the official said, reading from a court document.

Berenson's lawyer, Jose Luis Sandoval, said the extension was due to the case's complexity and he feared, if there was no ruling by early March, the case would be held up until April because of a holiday period.

Plea of innocence

Berenson, who says she is innocent of all charges, was arrested in 1995 and jailed by a hooded military judge for life as a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a small group which hopes to inspire a leftist revolution.

Her conviction was overturned in 2000 and a civil retrial ordered. That court convicted her last June of helping MRTA rebels with whom she lived to plot an attack on Congress and sentenced her to 20 years.

Her lawyer says Berenson, who was moved in December from Lima to a jail in the northern mountain city of Cajamarca for what officials said were discipline reasons, has "zero expectations" for the appeal, the last avenue open to her within Peru's legal system.

State attorney Isaias Tamayo told the appeal hearing last month Berenson willingly helped the MRTA and was not a tourist who became unwittingly mixed up with the rebels. He wants no change to the sentence.

If the sentence is confirmed, Berenson's only options would rest on a recourse she has made to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, which could take the case to the region's top rights court, or on a presidential pardon.

Eight years in Andean jails

President Bush, who visits Peru next month, raised Berenson's case with then President-elect Alejandro Toledo last June, urging that humanitarian factors be taken into consideration in her case. Berenson spent years in freezing, high-altitude Andean jails and says she suffered eye, stomach and joint problems which still trouble her.

Polls show most Peruvians view Berenson as a terrorist and remember the image of her after her arrest - wild-eyed, screaming in Spanish and defending the rebels' ideals.