Peru justice minister: New law allowing jailed foreigners to serve out sentences at home country doesn't apply to U.S. citizen Lori Berenson

Peruvian Times -- 13 December 2008

Lori Berenson, a New York native imprisoned for collaborating with leftist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) guerrillas, will be prohibited from making use of a new law that allows foreigners serving jail time in Peru to be sent back to their country of origin, according to Justice Minister Rosario Fernandez.

"The law is neither retroactive, nor does it apply to terrorists," said Fernandez, who told reporters on Friday that Berenson will serve out her 20-year sentence in Peru.

"Berenson does not stand to benefit from this law," Fernandez told state news agency Andina. "The reason is that there are special regulations, very special legislation in everything pertaining to terrorism."

The law, approved Thursday night by Congress by a 84-1 vote, allows foreigners to serve their jail time in their countries of origin, for humanitarian reasons. Prisoners face serious overcrowding and few basic facilities, particularly if they have no relatives or friends to supply basic items such as toiletries or reading materials.

In Peru, the promise of a fast buck has quickly turned into a nightmare for 1,094 foreigners who are awaiting trial or serving sentences in Peruvian jails, on charges of operating as drug mules or traffickers. A large number of foreign prisoners are from North and South America, but there are also close to 300 who are European or South African.

"As of today," said Fernandez, "all foreigners wishing to serve their time abroad can apply through a legal procedure."

But, according to the president of Congress' Justice Commission, Juan Carlos Eguren, Berenson stands to benefit from the law, just like any other foreigner, no matter what the crime committed.

"We didn't think about the Berenson case," said Eguren. "But, in principle, yes, she could benefit from the law. there are no particular dispositions because laws are generic. You can't have a law for Mrs. Berenson, or a law that excludes Mrs. Berenson."

She is not the focus of the law, added Eguren. Whether a person is serving out a year or life, the time can be served in Peru or in the country of origin. "We will not be pardoning anything, only changing the place of imprisonment," he told daily newspaper Correo.

Berenson, 39, is scheduled for release in November 2015, but could be eligible for conditional parole in 2010.

Berenson, who is reportedly about four months pregnant, is married to human rights attorney Anibal Apari, a paroled former MRTA member. Upon his release from prison in 2003, Apari married the New York activist and returned to law school. He now works in an organization that provides legal aid to people accused of subversion.

A former Massachussets Institute of Technology student, Berenson was arrested on a public bus in downtown Lima on November 30, 1995 and charged with helping plan a thwarted takeover of Peru's Congress. Berenson was sentenced to life by a secret military court for "treason against the fatherland," but that conviction was vacated in 2000 and she was retried by a civilian court.

In 2004, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights upheld the civilian court's ruling, rejecting Berenson's legal argument that the second conviction amounted to double jeopardy and closing her last recourse to appeal her 20-year sentence. The Costa Rica-based court's decision came after years of rulings against Peru for its draconian counter-terrorism laws.

The MRTA, inactive since the late 1990s, was a Cuban-inspired guerrilla group that waged a campaign of assassinations, kidnappings and bombings, but was dwarfed in the shadow of the far more violent and deadly Maoist Shining Path. According to Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the MRTA was responsible for less than 2 percent of the estimated 70,000 deaths caused by political violence between 1980 and 2000.

Berenson has steadfastly maintained that she is a political prisoner and that she never knowingly collaborated with the MRTA, which is best known for its December 1996 raid on a VIP party in the Japanese Ambassador's residence in Lima, and an ensuing four-month standoff that ended with a daring commando raid that killed all 14 of the rebels, and saved all but one of 72 hostages.

The rebels had demanded freedom for hundreds of imprisoned comrades. Berenson was No. 3 on the list.

Peruvians still remember Berenson's Jan. 8, 1996, appearance before television cameras, when she made her now famous declaration in defense of the guerrilla group. With fists clenched at her sides, her face contorted in anger, she shouted: "There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA. It is a revolutionary movement."

The hooded military judges convicted her days later of treason, denying her the right to present a legal defense or cross examine prosecution witnesses.

"I am innocent of all charges against me. Neither of my trials, in the civilian or military court, has proven me guilty of any crime," said Berenson in her closing statement in 2001. "I have been called a terrorist, a term that has been used and abused in Peruvian society for far too many years, mostly because of the psychological impact of a concept that brings to mind indiscriminate violence designed to terrorize; irrational destructive violence; deadly, senseless terror. I am not a terrorist, and as I stated in this courtroom before, I condemn terrorism, I always have."