Don't seek a pardon for Berenson

Alejandro Toledo, the president-elect of Peru, visits Washington this week. When he takes office on July 28 he will face the daunting task of rebuilding both Peru's economy and democracy. Some in Washington, however, want to make Peru's economic and political viability a lower priority than having him pardon an American convicted of terrorism.

That would be a major mistake for Peru and for the United States.

A small but dedicated band of activists are urging President Bush and Congress to put the case of Lori Berenson at the top of US concerns with regard to Peru.

Ms. Berenson was convicted of being a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) in 1996. She was sentenced to life by a military court that would have embarrassed a kangaroo. Last year, in an attempt to improve his international standing in the dying days of his regime, former President Alberto Fujimori arranged a new trial on lesser charges in a civilian court. That court found Berenson guilty of collaborating with the MRTA and last week gave her a 20-year sentence.

In the first trial, Berenson's Peruvian attorney argued for reduced charges by claiming she was a collaborator and not a leader of the MRTA. In the new trial Berenson asserted she was completely innocent and claimed she:

Worked four years in Central America for the Farabundo Marti National Liberation (a guerrilla group with extensive contacts with the MRTA) and had been in Peru for a year before her arrest -- yet knew nothing about the MRTA.

Rented and lived for most of that year in a house filled with weapons, explosives, and terrorists without knowing it was a MRTA training base.

Worked as a journalist, despite having never written a story.

Did not know the photographer she hired and the people who frequented her house were the leaders of the MRTA.

She also maintained that her housemate, one MRTA leader, and the head of the MRTA unit that took hundreds of people hostage at a reception at the Japanese ambassador's residence in December 1996, were all lying when they said she was a MRTA collaborator.

She failed to sway the court or Peruvian public opinion. Peruvian human rights groups, for instance, believe her second trial was fair and the verdict just. She still asserts she is not a terrorist and does not believe in terrorism. She also maintains the MRTA are revolutionaries, not terrorists, and has steadfastly refused to criticize the group.

This is the same MRTA, however, that the State Department lists as a terrorist organization, that kidnapped people for ransom, and that bombed the US Embassy, the US ambassador's residence, Peruvian-American cultural centers, and American fast-food restaurants. Among the hundreds of hostages the MRTA took at the Japanese ambassador's residence were 14 American Embassy staffers and spouses. Had I not left the reception half an hour before the terrorists arrived, it would have been 15.

In Peru, prisoners who stay out of trouble are released on probation after serving one-third of their time. This has been the case for dozens of Americans convicted of drug smuggling. By the time Berenson exhausts her appeals to Peru's Supreme Court she will have served a third of her 20-year sentence. She might then make the case that she has suffered enough. Whether she will strike any more a responsive chord with the Peruvian judicial system and public will remain to be seen.

When Mr. Toledo takes office, he will have to repair the damage done by his predecessor, Mr. Fujimori. In acting out his obsession with an unconstitutional third term, Fujimori subverted and subjugated every significant institution in the country. The legislature, judiciary, election officials, military leadership, and most of the media were used to ensure Fujimori stayed in power. When a video was televised showing the degree of his corruption, Fujimori fled the country and faxed back his resignation.

Toledo will therefore have to rebuild Peru's institutions and public confidence in them. In addition, he will have to deal with severe economic difficulties. Half of Peru's people live in poverty, and their plight has been exacerbated by a stalled economy. Four presidential elections in 14 months created uncertainty that weakened investor confidence.

With 40 percent of Colombia run by narco-terrorists, and Venezuela's president each day looking more like a combination of Mussolini and the Marx brothers, we should celebrate the return of an elected government to another Andean country: Peru. The US might also discuss with President-elect Toledo what we can do to strengthen Peru's democracy and not expect him to commit political suicide in his first days in office by pardoning Lori Berenson.

Dennis Jett, who served as US ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is dean of the International Center at the University of Florida and author of "Why Peacekeeping Fails" (St. Martin's Press).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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