Peru judge paroles New York woman who aided rebels

AP -- 25 May 2010

by Franklin Briceno

Associated Press writers Tom McElroy in New York and Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

LIMA, Peru - A judge granted parole Tuesday to Lori Berenson, the 40-year-old New York activist who has spent 15 years in Peruvian prisons on a conviction of aiding leftist rebels.

Judge Jessica Leon granted a request by Berenson, who gave birth a year ago, for conditional release at a hearing at the Lima prison where the American has been held since January 2009.

She said, however, that Berenson cannot leave Peru until her sentence for terrorist collaboration ends in November 2015.

Berenson nodded assent but did not speak when asked by the judge if she accepted the decision. Bespectacled and wearing earrings, with her braided brown hair hanging over an embroidered sweater, Berenson looked serene during the one-hour hearing.

"I'm happy with the sentence because justice was done," said her lawyer, Anibal Apari, who is also father of Berenson's child, Salvador.

Apari said Berenson, whom he met in prison and married in 2003, would be freed within 24 hours. Their child has been living with his mother in prison since his birth last May.

Apari is a former member of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, the now defunct leftist band of which Berenson was convicted of helping.

Berenson's father Mark, a former Baruch College statistics professor, was overjoyed at the news. "I let out a shout that I think my daughter heard in Peru."

"I'm feeling great, I had three glasses of wine, this is an incredible, incredible feeling," he told The Associated Press in New York. "It solely will be topped only when I see my daughter and grandson in freedom."

The judge's decision, read by a clerk, said Berenson had "completed re-education, rehabilitation and re-socialization" and demonstrated "positive behavior."

"I'm very glad that the judge saw all the evidence and agreed that Lori earned and deserved the parole," Mark Berenson added in a telephone interview. "It shows that justice and democracy in Peru can work."

Berenson had for many years denied any wrongdoing, maintaining she was a political prisoner and not a terrorist.

But her defense team said in papers submitted to the judge that she "recognized she committed errors in involving herself in activites of the MRTA." She said in her parole request that she planned to work as a translator if released.

In Washington, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said he had no comment when asked if Berenson faces any charges in the United States once released.

In an e-mail sent to supporters on Tuesday, Berenson's parents said their daughter would be raising Salvador as a single mother.

"Anibal and Lori are legally separated but remain friends and both share concerns for Salvador's proper upbringing," they wrote.

They said their grandson "will certainly enjoy the opportunity to run around outside the confines of the prison. He is learning both English and Spanish but babbles continuously in 'unknown tongue.'"

Photos of the Berensons with their grandson are posted along with the message on the couple's website.

Their daughter had dropped out of the Massachussets Institute of Technology in 1989 to pursue a passion for social justice. After a time in Central America - she worked as private secretary to El Salvador's top rebel commander during peace negotiations there - she traveled to Peru in 1994.

Berenson was arrested in 1995 and initially accused of being a leader of the MRTA, which bombed banks and kidnapped and killed civilians but was nowhere near as violent as the better-known Shining Path insurgency.

It is blamed for, at most, 200 killings.

Police claimed she helped coordinate Tupac Amaru activities and obtained weapons for the group. She was convicted of treason by a military court in 1996.

But after an intense campaign by her parents - both of whom took early retirement to dedicate themselves full-time to their daughter - and other supporters, she was retried in a civilian court in 2000. It convicted Berenson of the lesser crime and reduced her sentence to 20 years.

The U.S. State Department had pushed hard for the civilian trial, saying Berenson was denied due process by the military tribunal. Her case soured relations between the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton and that of former Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori.

Fujimori stepped down in disgrace in 2000 before Berenson's retrial, and is now in state custody on convictions for crimes including murder, kidnapping and corruption.

Berenson's spent much of her captivity - especially the years before her retrial - in harsh mountain prisons.

She was transferred to Lima in January 2009 from a prison in the northern province of Cajamarca after being diagnosed with a herniated disc that was aggravated by her pregnancy.