Dispute Rises in Peru's Handling of Lori Berenson's Terror Trial

The New York Times -- 18 July 2002

by Reuters

LIMA, Peru -- A dispute has erupted between Peru and Latin America's human rights watchdog over whether the trial of Lori Berenson, an American serving a 20-year prison term for aiding leftist rebels, was fair.

Peru said on Tuesday that it would challenge the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights after the group found fault with the trial of Ms. Berenson, a 32-year-old from New York.

Peru said it would take the case to the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is part of the Organization of American States, on July 22.

The decision by Peru to challenge criticism of its treatment of Ms. Berenson has highlighted the urgent need for repeal of its antiterrorism laws, rights activists and lawyers said today.

José Miguel Vivanco, executive director for the Americas of the Washington-based Human Rights Watch, said Peru's antiterrorism laws were a problem that had been neglected. "The government of President Alejandro Toledo should exercise some leadership to strengthen antiterrorism legislation without violating fundamental freedoms," he said.

Peru rejected a nonbinding recommendation from the rights commission, a Washington-based branch of the Organization of American States, that found the government at fault and said it should pay Ms. Berenson undisclosed damages.

Ms. Berenson, who says she is not guilty, has been held since November 1995, when she was arrested and accused of being a leader of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, one of two rebel groups whose fights with the government in the 1980's and 1990's cost 30,000 lives.

The commission has not made public its recommendation, but a respected lawyer and human rights expert who said he had seen the document called it "very drastic" in its condemnation of laws introduced by the former president of Peru, Alberto K. Fujimori, who fled the country in 2000 after accusations of corruption and repression.

At issue is whether civilian retrial in 2001 of Ms. Berenson, which was ordered after her original 1996 conviction by a hooded military judge was overturned, respected human rights and due process.

Peru insists it did, and Justice Minister Fernando Olivera said there was no way Ms. Berenson, who is scheduled to leave prison in 2016, would be freed early or pardoned.

But the lawyer said the commission blasted the very legal definition of what constituted terrorism or terrorist collaboration as "a violation of human rights."

The lawyer also said the commission recommended that all evidence from both trials be thrown out, meaning any retrial would have to start over.

A spokesman for the seven-judge court, which sits four times a year in San José, Costa Rica, said there was likely to be a preliminary study of the case at its next session, which starts on Aug. 22 and lasts about two weeks. Judges would probably fix a date for a public hearing, and the whole process could take two years.

Mr. Fujimori pulled Peru out of the court, whose decisions are binding for members, in 1999 after it ordered the retrial of four Chileans convicted of treason as Túpac Amaru leaders. Peru rejoined in 2001.

Ms. Berenson's parents said they hoped the case could bring an end to their daughter's legal odyssey. "We are definitely encouraged," Ms. Berenson's mother, Rhoda, said from New York. "The precedents are all in our favor."