U.N. team visits American woman imprisoned by Peru

Reuters -- 28 January 1998

LIMA (Reuters) - A U.N. mission inspecting Peruvian jails flew Wednesday to meet Lori Berenson, an American woman sentenced on "terrorism" charges to life in a maximum-security prison, state judicial sources said.

The four-man human rights team left Lima headed for the high-altitude Yanamayo jail in the southern Andes, to investigate if the New Yorker received due process at her secret military trial. The team is in Peru for 10 days to review cases of arbitrary detention.

Berenson, a 28-year-old New Yorker, whose health is failing as she spends 23-1/2 hours a day in a tiny, ice-cold cell, has repeatedly said she is innocent of the charges that she led a plot by Tupac Amaru rebels to take over Peru's Congress.

In the United States, a growing campaign demanding a re-trial in an open court has won widespread support in the U.S. Congress and led to her lawyers' appealing Berenson's sentence before the Organization of American States (OAS).

Her family claim a gun was held to Berenson's head when anonymous judges delivered sentence in January 1996.

The U.N. team plans to leave Yanamayo Friday and inspect up to three more high-security jails that hold some of the 4,000 people imprisoned on "terrorism" charges, U.N. officials said. The mission has visited Lima's Castro Castro prison and met with human rights groups since arriving in Peru last Sunday.

While Berenson is one of Peru's most high-profile prisoners, human rights groups say that up to a thousand innocent people, jailed by the secret courts, also suffer the country's "inhuman" conditions in the prisons for "terrorists."

In the closed-door courts, judges -- who traditionally wore hoods or sat behind screens -- do not allow defendants' lawyers to cross-examine witnesses and often complete trials in a matter of minutes. Anonymity of judges was banned last year but most of the courts' arcane rules still exist.

Peru holds about 4,000 prisoners accused of supporting the Shining Path, and the smaller Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement -- both included on the U.S. government's "terrorist" list.

The ongoing guerilla warfare in Peru have cost a total of about 30,000 lives and $25 billion in infrastructure damage since 1980.