In Peru, a second chance at fairness for Lori Berenson

Accused of aiding terrorists, the New Yorker tells her story to a judge who has led judicial reform.

In the United States, she has been the subject of an impassioned campaign to win her release. Most Peruvians know her only from the angry speech she made defending Tupac Amaru rebels shortly before being sentenced five years ago to life in prison. As her new civilian trial began in Lima last week, New Yorker Lori Berenson finally has a chance to publicly tell her side of the story.

And some observers say that reforms in the country's judicial system and the departure of a corrupt administration have increased the possibility that, this time, she will get a fair trial.

Arrested in 1995, Ms. Berenson was accused of plotting with members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, to take over Peru's Congress. A panel of military judges found her guilty of treason.

But last August, Peru's military court unexpectedly annulled her life sentence, sending the case to civilian courts for retrial on lesser charges. Many interpreted the decision as an attempt by former President Alberto Fujimori to woo Washington after charges of vote-stealing left his government on shaky ground. A bribery scandal involving ex-presidential adviser and current fugitive Vladimiro Montesinos led to Fujimori's resignation.

Berenson's family and lawyers say a fair trial is still impossible. "I'm amazed that the current government has allowed this and other trials to go on while the reform in the judiciary process has not been completed," says her father, Mark Berenson.

But others say Peru, which faces general elections next month, has changed dramatically in the four months since Fujimori resigned.

"If this trial had happened with Fujimori still in office, I think things would have been very different. The trial would have been handled according to political interests, and I think there would have been pressure on the judges to find her guilty. Things have changed in that regard. I don't see that happening now," says lawyer Carlos Rivera of the Legal Defense Institute, which defends Peruvians falsely accused of terrorism.

In the 1990s, hundreds of innocent people were jailed under emergency measures aimed at quelling the country's two Marxist uprisings. Rivera says Peru's civilian terrorism courts have been cleaned up significantly in recent years under Judge Marcos Ibazeta, the presiding judge in Berenson's case. A respected independent, Mr. Ibazeta promises a fair trial and has allowed the proceedings to be broadcast live.

Berenson now faces charges of terrorist collaboration, which carries a 20-year sentence. Prosecutors say she rented a Lima safe house for MRTA rebels and used press credentials to gain access to Congress before the planned attack. A raid on the house the day of her arrest turned into a 10-hour shootout that killed a policeman and wounded several guerrillas. Berenson maintains her innocence, saying her housemates never revealed their true identities and that she didn't know her house was being used to train MRTA militants and store weapons.

During questioning by prosecutors last week, Berenson showed no sign that five years in prison had broken her spirit. In fluent Spanish, she accused police of planting evidence, coercing witnesses' testimony and running up $800 on her American Express card confiscated in the 1995 raid.

Prosecutors are using much of the same evidence from the first trial, plus a new report on Berenson's alleged rowdy behavior at the Lima prison to which she was transferred in August.

Meanwhile, a former guerrilla commander in El Salvador, Leonel Gonzalez, has told The Associated Press that Berenson had earlier aided Salvadoran rebels but had no part in their military actions. Gonzalez called Peruvian charges "unjust" because Berenson "was not even trained for all the things she is accused of, nor would she have been in that type of activity."

But many Peruvians remain skeptical. "She was living in a house filled with terrorists. That's not something that happens to someone who just comes as a tourist," says Lima cab driver Victor Ruiz.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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