Judge orders Lori Berenson freed from prison

Associated Press -- 5 November 2010

by Carla Salazar

LIMA, Peru - A Peruvian judge ordered convicted rebel collaborator Lori Berenson freed from prison Friday, ruling her initial parole decision sound, but the New Yorker's legal troubles remained unresolved.

Judge Jessica Leon originally paroled Berenson in May, deeming her rehabilitated after having served the required three-quarters of a 20-year sentence for assisting the leftist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA.

But a higher court annulled the judge's decision on a technicality in August, sending Berenson back to a Lima woman's prison. She took her 18-month old son, Salvador, with her.

Berenson, 40, showed no emotion as the judge ruled in a prison courtroom. Her lawyer and husband, Anibal Apari, said he expected her to be freed within 24 hours.

The former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student and leftist activist must remain in Peru, however, until her full sentence is served — unless President Alan Garcia decides to commute it.

Garcia has indicated he would not consider a decision until all of the legal issues in the case have been resolved - which means Berenson could be stuck in Peru for some time. The prosecutor in the case said he would appeal Friday's ruling.

Apari said an appeal would take two to three months to be resolved.

Berenson's mother, Rhoda Berenson, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview, "I'm very happy right now. ... We knew all along that Lori was not doing anything unusual. She was following the rules so we were only hoping that the law would prevail and it has."

But Berenson's father, Mark, told the AP in an e-mail that "our joy is tempered knowing the prosecutor will again appeal the judge's decision and, as Yogi Berra once observed, 'It ain't over until it's over.'"

He told the AP last week that his daughter has medical issues "that require surgical attention" and that "Lori learned last year from her back surgery that without appropriate, if any, post operative rehabilitation such surgery is useless."

Leon dismissed arguments by prosecutor Julio Galindo that Berenson had not completed sufficient work and study benefits to attain the full 15 years of credit.

"The sentence was completed with its goal of re-education, rehabilitation and resocialization, which permits her to finish the sentence in liberty," the judge said.

Galindo has pledged to do his all to keep Berenson in prison, arguing that it is his duty to protect Peruvian society and that others convicted of terrorism-related crimes could now argue that they, too, should go free.

"There are no guarantees for people who want to live in peace, for the children and families of people killed by terrorists," he told reporters after the hearing.

Many Peruvians remain traumatized by a 1980-2000 conflict that claimed 80,000 lives. In that conflict, the fanatical Maoist Shining Path did most of the killing while the MRTA was a minor player.

In returning Berenson to prison on Aug. 18, Galindo had successfully argued that a required report by police verifying the address at which she would be living was not filed. A three-judge panel accepted the argument and annulled Leon's parole.

In an interview with three Lima-based journalists at the time, Berenson said her case had become a political football with presidential elections due in April.

She is viewed by many Peruvians as a symbol of the left-wing violence that afflicted the nation two decades ago - though she denies ever belonging to the MRTA or engaging in violent acts.

In ordering Berenson's release Friday, Leon cited a letter Berenson wrote in May in which she apologized to Peruvian society for any hurt she may have caused.

Berenson was arrested in 1995 and accused of helping the MRTA plan an armed takeover of the Peruvian Congress. The takeover never happened, but prosecutors said that among other things, Berenson had helped the group to rent a safe house.

A military court convicted Berenson in 1996 and sentenced her to life in prison for sedition.

She was retried by a civilian court in 2001 and sentenced to 20 years on a conviction of terrorist collaboration.

Berenson was completely unrepentant at the time of her arrest but softened during years of sometimes harsh prison conditions, eventually being praised as a model prisoner.