Associated Press
Sun, Dec. 05, 2004

Int. Court Ends Bid to Overturn Conviction

Associated Press

LIMA, Peru - Even before an international human rights court rejected her last appeal, Lori Berenson, a New Yorker convicted of collaborating with Marxist guerrillas in Peru, felt resigned to serving out the rest of her 20-year sentence.

During a visitor's day at Huacariz penitentiary in Peru's northern Andes several weeks ago, Berenson said that as long as the government continues to associate her with terrorism, "I'll be in prison for the next 11 years."

"I'm still the personification, representative of terrorism," she said, "so they won't give me less than 20 years."

Still, the ruling last week by the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Human Rights Court came as a surprise to her, and stunned her family and supporters.

The court upheld her 2001 civilian retrial and closed completely her nearly decade-long attempt to overturn her conviction for aiding the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, in a conspiracy to seize Peru's Congress.

The 35-year-old Berenson - scheduled for release in November 2015 - had predicted the court would order a new trial, though she felt it would be as flawed as she considered the 2001 proceedings to be.

During the visitors' day, she described herself as a victim of government propaganda to prevent Peruvians from examining the true social inequities that wracked the country in political violence from 1980 to 2000.

Peruvians first saw Berenson soon after her arrest in November 1995, when ex-President Alberto Fujimori identified her as a leader in a foiled plan to seize hostages to exchange for imprisoned rebels.

On Jan. 8, 1996, she made a televised declaration in defense of the now-dormant guerrilla group. With fists clenched at her sides, her face contorted in anger, she shouted: "There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA. It is a revolutionary movement."

Hooded military judges convicted her days later of treason in a secret court and sentenced her to life.

Under intense U.S. pressure, Fujimori granted her a new civilian retrial just before the November 2000 collapse of his decade-long authoritarian regime.

Her parents, Mark and Rhoda Berenson, campaigned tirelessly to convince Peruvians - weary of terrorism and overwhelmingly convinced of her guilt - that their daughter's concern for social justice had been distorted by Fujimori to look like a terrorist agenda. They built a powerful U.S. lobby to push her case internationally.

Berenson was convicted the following year on a lesser terrorist collaboration charge.

But her lawyers said the conviction was still based on Fujimori's draconian anti-terrorism laws and that Berenson faced hostile judges who relied on coerced testimony and tainted evidence from the military trial.

In 2002, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington unanimously condemned the process. Her supporters fully expected the Inter-American Human Rights Court would follow suit.

Instead, the seven-judge panel, the legal arm of the Organization of American States, voted 6-1 for Berenson to serve out her full sentence.

Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said he was shocked by the outcome, but acknowledged, "The court has an excellent reputation and acts with fidelity to legal principles."

Birns said now President Alejandro Toledo should "show a little humanity" and offer Berenson an executive pardon.

"I have no idea how culpable Ms. Berenson is, but the legal treatment she has been afforded has been so scandalous that she deserves to be released just on that," he said.

The international court did fault Peru for subjecting Berenson to the military trial and for holding her in frigid, inhumane conditions for nearly three years in the windowless Yanamayo prison, 12,700 feet above sea level in the southern Andes.

Still, even some of Berenson's staunchest supporters have trouble reconciling the mountain of circumstantial evidence against her.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Peru Dennis Jett said the reason is simple: "She isn't innocent."

Berenson testified that she dropped out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1989 to travel to Central America, where she worked as a personal secretary to the top Salvadoran guerrilla commander during peace talks.

She admitted renting a house in Lima in 1995 used by the MRTA as a hide-out but swore she knew none of the rebels' true identities until after her arrest.

She denied scrawling a coded floor plan of Congress. But Berenson admitted going there with journalist's credentials, accompanied by a photographer who was really the wife of a top guerrilla leader.

That same guerrilla leader 13 months later led a takeover of the Japanese ambassador's Lima residence. The rebels held 72 hostages for four months, demanding freedom for hundreds of imprisoned comrades. Berenson was No. 3 on the list. The rebels were killed in a daring commando raid that saved all but one of the hostages.

Berenson's best friends during most of her incarceration were MRTA inmates. Last year, she married Anibal Apari, 41, a paroled MRTA member whom she met when both were serving time at Yanamayo prison.

"She married a Tupac Amaru guy. Who knows where her head is?" said Ronald Greenwald, a New York rabbi and Berenson supporter who tried to negotiate with Fujimori to get charges against her reduced.

"I've got to tell you when she married this guy, I backed off a little bit because that sends a message."