Court upholds Berenson sentence

Rights panel may speak out

Miami Herald -- 19 February 2002

by Kevin G. HallLucien Chauvin

LIMA, Peru - The Supreme Court of Peru on Monday upheld a 20-year prison term for American Lori Berenson, sentenced for collaborating with leftist rebels who sought the overthrow of Peru's government.

Her hopes for freedom now rest in the hands of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

A civilian court on June 20 convicted Berenson of collaboration with Peru's Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. She received a 20-year sentence for what the court called a planning role in a plot to storm the Peruvian Congress and take hostages.

In a 4-1 decision, a five-judge panel on Monday rejected Berenson's appeal of her conviction, effectively ending her legal options within the Peruvian court system.

Family Interviewed

Now her family hopes that the influential Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a Costa Rica-based arm of the Organization of American States, will call for her release. The commission carries moral authority, and although OAS countries are not bound by its recommendations, they traditionally follow them.

The commission has considered Berenson's case for four years and has not yet reached any decision.

It has held three hearings and has been critical of the anti-terrorism laws under which she and thousands of Peruvians were convicted in the mid-1990s.

In New York, Lori Berenson's mother, Rhoda Berenson, said she hoped that President Bush's trip on March 23 to Peru would lead to the release of her daughter on humanitarian grounds.

Bush's trip will be the first to Peru by a U.S. president.

''I would hope that President Alejandro Toledo can find a humanitarian resolution and send Lori home,'' Berenson said. She added that both President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have asked for a humanitarian release in conversations with Toledo.

Arrested in 1995

Berenson, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student, was arrested on Nov. 30, 1995, and accused of being part of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, known by its Spanish initials MRTA. Former President Alberto Fujimori, who fled office amid corruption charges in 2000 and is hiding in Japan with protection of the Japanese government, paraded Berenson before the press to show he was tough on guerrillas.

In January 1996 she was convicted by a secret anti-terrorism court before judges whose faces were hooded to conceal their identity and protect them from terrorist retribution.

Berenson was not able to see the evidence against her before it was presented to the judges. That trial was widely criticized, and she was given a civilian court trial that ended with her conviction in June.

The civilian trial, which showed that at minimum Berenson shared a home with guerrillas, was rife with irregularities.

Many legal observers said the case amounted to double jeopardy because she was tried in a different court with the same evidence used in the first trial.