Peru Criticized on New Yorker's Trial

The New York Times -- Friday, 5 January 1996 , page A6

by Calvin Sims

LIMA, Peru, Jan. 4 - As the secret military trial of a New York woman accused of terrorism draws to a close here, lawyers for the woman, Lori Helene Berenson, and human rights groups have sharply criticized Peru's judicial system.

"Whether she's guilty or innocent will not be determined in this trial because the Peruvian justice system is 100 percent unfair," Anne Manual, deputy director for Human Rights Watch/Americas, said in an interview from Washington. "She's not even Peruvian, and she's charged with treason." Particularly troubling for the lawyers and human rights groups is Peru's use of military courts to try civilians on charges of treason and its system of "faceless" judges, whose identities are concealed behind a partition. The system, which the Government established in 1992 as part of emergency measures to combat rising guerrilla violence, denies defendants the right to due process, the groups said. In military trials, defendants are normally not allowed to cross-examine witnesses, challenge evidence or call witnesses in their defense. Most of the judges in the trials are senior military officers who lack training in the law.

Thousands of Peruvians have been detained under the system, which allows the police to arrest anyone they suspect of terrorism, and hundreds of people have been judged and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1994, the military courts had a 97 percent conviction rate, according to Peruvian non-governmental and human rights organizations. Human rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of detainees who were later found to be not guilty on appeal, and the case of Ms. Berenson has brought international attention to the military trials of civilians here.

"The military courts of Peru violate every principle of due process of the law and are not concerned with truth or justice and are an instrument of oppression," said Ramsey Clark, Attorney General in the Johnson Administration, who has been retained by Ms. Berenson's family to represent her. "They convict whomever they choose to convict."

In October, leaders of Peru's Catholic and evangelical churches said at least 700 people had been jailed on false charges of terrorism and began holding public prayer meetings to show solidarity with those detained.

In a recent interview, Peru's Justice Minister, Fernando Vega Santa Gadea acknowledged that there were "problems" with his Government's system of "face-less" judges but said it was "a necessity in the fight against terrorism."

More than 30,000 people have been killed since the Shining Path guerrilla movement and other rebel groups took up arms in 1980, but while the violence has sharply declined after the capture of top guerrilla leaders, the Government still sees the groups as a significant threat.

Mr. Vega said the Government was seeking congressional approval for a judicial commission that would expedite appeals for people who have been convicted of terrorism but whose cases appear to have been unfairly adjudicated. Meanwhile, a military judge is deciding the fate of Ms. Berenson, 26, who was arrested on Nov. 30, shortly before the anti-terrorist police stormed a safe house and arrested 22 Marxist guerrillas who the police said were planning an attack on Peru's Congress.

Anti-terrorist police have accused Ms. Berenson of treason, saying that she provided the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement , a pro-Cuban guerrilla group, with detailed information on the floor plans of the Congress, its security and members, and that she rented an apartment and a house for them to use.

The police said diagrams, notes, weapons and police and military uniforms found at the safe house indicated that the group was planning to seize members of Congress and trade them for captured guerrillas.

The military judge will decide whether there is enough evidence to convict Ms. Berenson of treason, which carries a minimum penalty of 30 years in prison, a sentence recommended by the prosecutor, and a maximum of life. While the judge can throw out the case or turn it over to a civil court for a lesser charge, any decision can be appealed to a higher military court by the authorities or by Ms. Berenson.

Although her lawyers have maintained that she is not guilty, they had wanted Ms. Berenson to be tried on lesser charge of terrorism or collaboration, which would be heard in civil court, where they believe they can present a better defense. The lawyers have argued that she had no prior knowledge of the planned attack and that she believed that information she gathered for an article on the Peruvian Congress would be used by the guerrillas to form a political party.