Jailed American's lawyers seek return from Peru

Reuters -- 5 September 1996

by Saul Hudson

LIMA, Peru, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Lawyers for American Lori Berenson, who is in a Peruvian jail convicted of terrorism, on Thursday welcomed political moves to transfer her to the United States.

President Alberto Fujimori has said his government was studying recent proposals by U.S. Representative Bill Richardson that would lead to Berenson leaving the country.

"Richardson is acting with our blessing," said Tom Nooter, the Berenson family's lawyer in the United States. "In the bilateral relations between the two countries there is the power to make things happen."

Berenson, 27, was sentenced by a "faceless" military court in January to life imprisonment for allegedly helping plot a takeover of the Peruvian Congress by the Cuban-style guerrilla group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).

Richardson, a New Mexico Democrat who has negotiated the release of various U.S. hostages and prisoners abroad, felt his recent discussion with Fujimori about Berenson was "very positive," spokesman Stu Nagurka said in the United States.

It was not clear under what terms Richardson was proposing Berenson should leave Peru. Fujimori said last weekend the discussion involved a possible "swap" between Berenson, who was being held in the Yanamayo maximum security prison in the Andean city of Puno, and a Peruvian citizen in a U.S. jail.

But the strict application of a legal transfer treaty would "not be desirable" to Berenson, who maintains her innocence, according to her lawyer in Peru, Grimaldo Achahui.

While the use of a transfer treaty would assure her of improved conditions in a U.S. jail, it would mean losing her right to continue appealing a conviction based on evidence that could not be challenged at her trial, Achahui added.

Nevertheless, Berenson's legal team welcomed the political moves as more likely to bring a solution before the courts would deal with her case.

"Diplomats can work out other ways of doing things that are more comfortable for countries," Nooter said. "There's nothing wrong with that if the terms are acceptable."

Meanwhile Berenson, in solitary confinement all but half an hour a day, was "in good health, very calm and hoping for justice," Achahui said.

At a meeting in May with Fujimori, U.S. President Bill Clinton asked for a review of "due process" in the Berenson case. There is also a campaign in the United States, supported by former President Jimmy Carter, to annul the decison of the military court, whose anonymous judges usually wear hoods and do not allow cross-examination of witnesses.

Richardson's negotiations for the release of prisoners in other countries include the freeing of a U.S. helicopter pilot in 1994 after his aircraft was downed in North Korea and the release in Bangladesh this year of Eliadah McCord, an American woman serving a life sentence on a drug charge.