American Lori Berenson was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison Wednesday for collaborating with leftist guerrillas in a thwarted plot to seize Peru's Congress.
A civilian terrorism court found the 31-year-old New York native guilty of "terrorist collaboration" with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, but acquitted her of charges that she was an active rebel militant. "Everything leads to the conclusion that the accused Lori Berenson Mejia was not a mere spectator," the judges said in a verdict, read for nearly four hours by a court clerk. "Nor was she distant from what was occurring around her in relation to the activities of the MRTA," the verdict said, adding the case showed "an express and voluntary collaboration." The proceedings were carried live on Peru's cable news station Canal N, reflecting widespread local interest in the case.
Court: Berenson Aided Rebels
In accepting the prosecution's recommended 20-year-sentence, the court ruled that Berenson aided the group by renting a house that served as their hideout and posing as a journalist to enter Congress to gather intelligence with a top rebel commander's wife. Presiding Magistrate Marcos Ibazeta told Berenson if she had any questions or comments. "I consider this an unjust sentence and I am innocent of the charges against me," she said, requesting that the sentence be nullified. The verdict came five hours after Berenson, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student, said in her closing statement: "I am not a terrorist." "I am innocent of the prosecutor's charges of being a member of and a collaborator with the MRTA," she said. "I am not a terrorist. I condemn terrorism, and I say that in every case."
Little Sympathy in Peru
There is little sympathy for Berenson in Peru, which still remembers the bloody war against leftist rebels that wound down in the early 1990s. Justice Minister Diego Garcia Sayan said earlier that the government would respect the verdict and that Berenson would serve out any sentence in Peru — dimming hopes that she could receive a presidential pardon even if she is convicted. A spokesman for President-elect Alejandro Toledo, who takes office July 28, said he had no immediate comment on whether he might consider a pardon. But the spokesman said Toledo might discuss the matter on a trip to the United States next week to seek economic aid. Berenson has served more than five years in Andean jails after the military convicted her for allegedly plotting a thwarted raid on Congress by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA. That conviction was annulled in August and a new trial ordered. Wednesday's proceeding capped a high-profile trial in which Berenson adamantly proclaimed her innocence and criticized Peru's judicial system.
‘She Loves Peru, She Loves Justice’
Earlier Wednesday, Berenson was led into the courtroom in San Juan de Lurigancho prison, flanked by two female guards in bulletproof vests. She wore a beige jacket and a gray turtleneck, with wire-rimmed glasses perched on her nose. Journalists and her supporters filled the room. After Berenson's 45-minute closing statement, Mark Berenson flashed a peace sign with his fingers and said he believed in his daughter's innocence. "She loves Peru, she loves justice. If there is justice in this country, this court will acquit her," he said. Mark Berenson and wife Rhoda, who both attended the hearing, have fought a long battle to free their daughter. They have made powerful allies in the U.S. Congress.
A Fujimori Smoke Screen?
Peru had hoped Berenson's retrial would showcase how much its justice system has improved since the end of President Alberto Fujimori's 10-year autocratic rule in November. Fujimori declared emergency rule in the early 1990s to fight powerful leftist guerrillas. He set up a system of hooded military judges who dished out tough sentences to suspected guerrillas in trials widely criticized as lacking due process. The government claimed the anonymity of judges was necessary to protect them against reprisals from rebel groups. Berenson said she was used by Fujimori as a "smoke screen" to make himself appear tough on terrorism. "They used me as a symbol of political violence and of terrorism for more than five years," she said Wednesday. "I did not deserve this type of label."
Worked for Salvadoran Rebel Leader
Berenson arrived in Peru after working as a personal secretary to a Salvadoran rebel leader during peace negotiations that ended El Salvador's civil war in 1992. She has described herself as a social activist caught up in circumstances beyond her control. Much of the prosecution's case rested on testimony from Pacifico Castrellon, a Panamanian who came to Peru with Berenson in late 1994. Castrellon testified that he and Berenson met with, and took cash from, MRTA leaders in Ecuador before settling in Lima several weeks later. He said one of the contacts was Nestor Cerpa, the top MRTA commander. Berenson, who denied the meeting ever took place, has acknowledged that she and Castrellon rented the house used by MRTA guerrillas as a hide-out. But she said she did not know her housemates were rebels.
Did She Gather Info on Peru's Congress?
Prosecutors say Berenson posed as a journalist to enter Peru's legislature several times in 1995 to gather information. She was accompanied by Cerpa's wife, who acted as her photographer. Berenson, who was accredited by two left-leaning U.S. magazines but never published, insists she was researching articles about women and poverty. Berenson and Cerpa's wife were arrested hours before a military assault on a rebel safehouse that left three rebels and one police officer dead. Police say rebels had moved into the top floor of the house, where they were creating a plan to seize Congress and hold the members hostage in exchange for imprisoned comrades. Berenson moved out of the house three months before her arrest and said she knew nothing about activities on the top floor of the house, where police discovered 8,000 rounds of ammunition and dynamite. Other evidence allegedly seized from the house included a coded floor plan of Congress allegedly scrawled by Berenson. There was also a forged Peruvian election ID card bearing her photo. She suggested they were planted by police. The MRTA is named for an Inca ruler who led an Indian revolt against the Spanish colonists in the 1730s. The group is blamed for the deaths of some 200 people since it took up arms in 1984.