Berenson gets 20 years for aiding Peruvian guerrillas

Human rights groups differ on whether proceedings in civilian retrial were fair.

A panel of judges in Peru handed down a 20-year sentence in the civilian retrial of jailed American Lori Berenson, who was found guilty of collaborating with leftist guerrillas trying to overthrow the government.

Ms. Berenson stood and listened calmly for four hours late Wednesday as the court secretary read the 90-page sentence aloud to the San Juan de Lurigancho prison courtroom, packed with journalists and onlookers.

The court ruled that the New Yorker collaborated with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) by renting a house in a Lima suburb for its use and by using press credentials to gain access to the Peruvian Congress for a planned MRTA takeover.

Berenson's trial is the first high-profile terrorism trial since the departure of disgraced ex-president Alberto Fujimori last year. The transition government of Valentin Paniagua hoped that Berenson's civilian retrial, ordered after a military tribunal annulled her 1996 life sentence for treason last year, would illustrate reform in the Peruvian justice system in the seven months since Fujimori resigned amid corruption scandals.

"Peru has shown that it is still incapable of administering justice," said a visibly angry Mark Berenson, Berenson's father, after the sentence was delivered.

Representatives of several Peruvian human rights groups maintain Berenson's retrial met international standards of fairness. "The court has meticulously respected the rules of due process and has fully respected the defendant's right to a defense. I would say that the proceedings have been impeccable," says lawyer Carlos Rivera of the Legal Defense Institute, which defends Peruvians accused of terrorism.

But Marie Manrique of the US-based human rights group Rights Action, says Ms. Berenson did not receive a fair trial. "The fundamental problems in the trial revolve around the Fujimori-era anti-terrorist legislation that is still being used against Ms. Berenson, the double jeopardy [to which she has been subjected], the legal anomalies in the instructive phase and public hearings, and the lack of evidence against Ms. Berenson," she says.

Peru's anti-terrorist legislation, which has been criticized by the US State Department and international human rights groups, was passed shortly after Fujimori began authoritarian rule in 1992. At the time, Fujimori said a firm hand was needed to crush two armed uprisings by Shining Path and MRTA rebels. Critics say the law's vagueness on what constitutes terrorist activity has led to the wrongful imprisonment of thousands of innocent people.

The prosecution depended heavily on testimony and evidence from the 1996 secret military trial. Its star witness was Pacifico Castrellon, a Panamanian painter who met Berenson in 1994. Castrellon testified that after arriving in Quito, Ecuador together en route to Lima, Berenson introduced him to MRTA leader Nestor Cerpa, who financed the trip to Peru. He also testified that Cerpa put them in touch with other MRTA members in Lima, who provided the money to rent the house there.

"Castrellon lied, although I don't know whether it was to hide something, or as a condition for obtaining certain benefits," Berenson said in her final statement before being sentenced.

Other witnesses, including MRTA second-in-command Miguel Rincon, testified that Berenson had no knowledge of or involvement in MRTA activities.

In her closing statement, Berenson declared: "I am innocent of all charges against me. I am not a terrorist." She said that her roommates never revealed their true identities and that she had no idea the house was used to accommodate 16 young guerrillas from the Peruvian jungle. She never went up to the fourth floor where they were living, she said, because "it would never occur to me to enter someone else's space."

Many Peruvians find it hard to reconcile Berenson's claims of innocence with her steadfast refusal to condemn the MRTA. "If she really had no idea that her roommates were MRTA members, and then she gets thrown in prison because she was living with them, why isn't she angry that they tricked her? But she has never said a bad word about the MRTA," says Julio Casanova, a Lima computer science student.

Berenson and her lawyer have charged that the three-month civilian proceeding was more a trial of Berenson's political beliefs than of the facts. The defense has also argued that her case was subject to political manipulation from the moment of her arrest in 1995 up through her civilian retrial. "My case has always been used as a smokescreen," Berenson said.

Counting five years already served, she would be released in 2015. The defense is expected to appeal to Peru's Supreme Court.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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