Lawyer: Latam Rights Court to Reopen Berenson Case

Reuters -- 15 July 2002

by Jude Webber

LIMA, Peru - Latin America's top rights court will reopen the case of Lori Berenson, a New Yorker serving 20 years for aiding Peruvian leftist rebels, and could order her freed or retried in Peru, her lawyer said on Monday.

The Organization of American States' court, whose decision would be legally binding on member state Peru, is the last legal avenue open to the 32-year-old Berenson, who has denied wrongdoing.

If the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights upholds her conviction, her only hope of release would be a presidential pardon -- something Peru has indicated is unlikely.

The court will examine Berenson's case after a decision in her favor by the Inter-American Commission in Washington, her lawyer, Jose Luis Sandoval, told Reuters.

"The commission issued a pronouncement in her favor which was sent to the government in April," Sandoval said. He had no details of when the court could actually reopen the case. Legal sources said a final court ruling could take two years.

The Peruvian government, according to a resolution published in the official gazette on Saturday, has "taken the decision to take Lori Berenson's case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights."

It said the government had appointed lawyers "to defend the Peruvian state ... with the aim of ... obtaining a resolution favorable to the interests of Peru."

The government has set aside $182,900 to cover legal costs. The cash will come from a fund recovered from corruption under the hard-line government of President Alberto Fujimori, ousted in 2000 in a corruption scandal.

Sandoval said there would be a full trial in San Jose, Costa Rica, with oral hearings and witnesses, culminating in a ruling either to uphold the sentence, order Berenson free or order a retrial. The court cannot reduce her sentence or acquit or convict her, he added.

Berenson convicted as rebel collaborator

Berenson was arrested in 1995 under Fujimori's tough anti-terrorism laws, and a military court imprisoned her for life the following year as a leader of the Marxist rebel group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA.

The MRTA, along with the Maoist group, Shining Path, battled the state in the 1980s and 1990s in a conflict that killed about 30,000. The MRTA is best known for a 1996-1997 hostage siege of the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima.

Berenson's conviction was overturned in 2000 and a civilian retrial ordered, which found her guilty of aiding the MRTA in plotting an attack on Congress and imprisoned her for 20 years. With time served, she is due to leave prison two weeks after her 46th birthday.

Peru's top appeals court in February upheld the sentence, and the government of President Alejandro Toledo, which pledged an independent judiciary and respect for human rights after abuses under Fujimori, has said the trial was fair.

Sandoval said there was a legal precedent for the court to order Berenson's release. He cited the case of Maria Elena Loayza, a university teacher imprisoned in 1993 after confessing under torture to being a Shining Path rebel. She was released in 1997 after a ruling by the court.

"For this government to spend money to defend the illegal Fujimori laws is preposterous. ... Lori should be released immediately," Berenson's mother, Rhoda, told Reuters on Monday from her home in New York.