July 15, 2002

Court to reopen Berenson case

LIMA, Peru (Reuters) --Latin America's top rights court will reopen the case
of Lori Berenson, a New Yorker serving 20 years for aiding Peruvian leftist
rebels, and could order her freed or retried in Peru, her lawyer said on Monday.

The Organization of American States' court, whose decision would be legally
binding on member state Peru, is the last legal avenue open to the 32-year-old
Berenson, who has denied wrongdoing.

If the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights upholds her
conviction, her only hope of release would be a presidential pardon -- something
Peru has indicated is unlikely.

The court will examine Berenson's case after a decision in her favor by the
Inter-American Commission in Washington, her lawyer, Jose Luis Sandoval, told

"The commission issued a pronouncement in her favor which was sent to the
government in April," Sandoval said. He had no details of when the court could
actually reopen the case. Legal sources said a final court ruling could take two

The Peruvian government, according to a resolution published in the official gazette
on Saturday, has "taken the decision to take Lori Berenson's case to the
Inter-American Court of Human Rights."

It said the government had appointed lawyers "to defend the Peruvian state ... with
the aim of ... obtaining a resolution favorable to the interests of Peru."

The government has set aside $182,900 to cover legal costs. The cash will come
from a fund recovered from corruption under the hard-line government of President
Alberto Fujimori, ousted in 2000 in a corruption scandal.

Sandoval said there would be a full trial in San Jose, Costa Rica, with oral hearings
and witnesses, culminating in a ruling either to uphold the sentence, order Berenson
free or order a retrial. The court cannot reduce her sentence or acquit or convict
her, he added.

Berenson was arrested in 1995 under Fujimori's tough anti-terrorism laws, and a
military court imprisoned her for life the following year as a leader of the Marxist
rebel group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA.

The MRTA, along with the Maoist group, Shining Path, battled the state in the
1980s and 1990s in a conflict that killed about 30,000. The MRTA is best known
for a 1996-1997 hostage siege of the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima.

Berenson's conviction was overturned in 2000 and a civilian retrial ordered, which
found her guilty of aiding the MRTA in plotting an attack on Congress and
imprisoned her for 20 years. With time served, she is due to leave prison two weeks
after her 46th birthday.

Peru's top appeals court in February upheld the sentence, and the government of
President Alejandro Toledo, which pledged an independent judiciary and respect for
human rights after abuses under Fujimori, has said the trial was fair.

Sandoval said there was a legal precedent for the court to order Berenson's release.
He cited the case of Maria Elena Loayza, a university teacher imprisoned in 1993
after confessing under torture to being a Shining Path rebel. She was released in
1997 after a ruling by the court.

"For this government to spend money to defend the illegal Fujimori laws is
preposterous. ... Lori should be released immediately," Berenson's mother, Rhoda,
told Reuters on Monday from her home in New York.

    Copyright 2002 Reuters.