Paroled activist Berenson can leave Peru

Associated Press -- 19 December 2011

by Frank Bajak

LIMA, Peru - Three days after barring her exit, Peruvian migration officials gave paroled American Lori Berenson a document Monday clearing her to leave the country with her toddler son to spend the holidays with her family in New York City.

Despite a court's approval, authorities had prevented her from boarding a flight to New York on Friday. They said the 42-year-old, who had served 15 years on an accomplice to terrorism conviction before her parole last year, lacked an additional document.

"I'm just glad that they finally resolved the thing," her father, Mark Berenson, told The Associated press by phone from New York. "The next step is to get her on a plane and get her here."

He said it was not yet clear when his daughter would be flying home for her first trip out of Peru since her 1995 arrest for aiding the Tupac Amaru rebel group.

Lori Berenson admits helping Tupac Amaru rent a safe house where authorities seized a cache of weapons after a shootout with the rebels. She insists she didn't know guns were stored there and says she never joined the group.

In 1996, a military court of hooded judges convicted Berenson of treason and sentenced her to life in prison. After U.S. pressure, she was retried by a civilian court.

Mark Berenson said he went to sleep Friday night expecting to pick up his daughter and 31-month-old grandson, Salvador, the following morning.

Instead, he was awakened by news that she had been blocked from returning and spent the rest of the night angry and unable to sleep.

Lori Berenson and Salvador, accompanied by two officials who appeared to be from the U.S. Embassy, spent Monday morning at Peru's main migration office in downtown Lima and left shortly after 1 p.m. in a dark SUV with diplomatic plates.

"What she was given was an exit order," the assistant to the office's director, Jose Luis Ubillus, told the AP.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy, Mary Drake, said consular officials were assisting Berenson "as they would to any citizen."

RPP radio quoted migration office director Edgard Reymundo as saying of Berenson: "I don't know why she threatened to file suit and complain when there was no persecution, but only the need to obtain an exit order."

His office is a dependency of the Interior Ministry, where officials have not offered an explanation for why the former Massachusetts Institute Technology student was barred from exit on Friday.

Her lawyer, Anibal Apari, maintains there is no legal requirement for such an order and said officials' insistence on one on Friday was an abuse of power. Apari is Salvador's father and is amicably separated from Berenson, whom he met in prison.

State anti-terrorism attorney Julio Galindo told reporters on Monday that Berenson erred last week by not seeking such a document before trying to leave Peru.

Political analyst Aldo Panfichi, a Catholic University professor, said he believed she was not the victim of a conspiracy but rather of bureaucracy.

"It is highly probable that this is a question of excess bureaucracy by mid-level functionaries or miscoordination and lack of clarity between state agencies," he said.

Galindo said judicial authorities had failed to properly notify migration officials of the court decision last Thursday that granted Berenson permission to leave the country from Dec. 16 to Jan. 11.

The court ruled that Berenson was not a flight risk. Her father told the AP that his daughter has every intention of returning to Peru.

By law, she must remain in Peru until her full sentence lapses unless President Ollanta Humala decides to commute it.

Galindo said he filed an appeal on Friday seeking to nullify the court ruling that approved Berenson's New York trip. He opposed Lori Berenson's parole from the start, and succeeded last year in having her returned to prison on a technicality for 2 1/2 months until a court ordered her freed in November.

Peru remains deeply scarred from its 1980-2000 conflict, which claimed some 70,000 lives.

Its gaping inequalities drew the young Berenson to Peru from El Salvador, where she had worked for the country's top rebel commander during negotiations that led to a 1992 peace accord.

Tupac Amaru was a lesser player in Peru's conflict and Berenson sought it out, she told the AP in an interview last year, because it was similar to other revolutionary movements in Latin America.

The group never set off car bombs or engaged in the merciless slaughter of thousands as Shining Path rebels did, but it did engage in kidnappings and selective killings.

In the 1980s, it was known for hijacking grocery trucks and distributing food to the poor.

The group most famously raided the Japanese embassy in Peru in 1996 during a party and held 72 hostages for more than four months. A government raid killed all the rebel hostage takers.

Berenson was arrested leaving Peru's Congress and accused of helping plan its armed takeover, which never happened.

She was initially unrepentant, but harsh prison life softened her. She was praised as a model prisoner in the report that supported her parole.

Some Peruvians still consider her a terrorist. She had been insulted in the street, and news media have repeatedly hounded and mobbed her.