American Convicted in Peru

American Lori Berenson was convicted today of collaborating with a leftist guerrilla organization that had plotted a thwarted assault on Peru's Congress, but cleared of charges she was an active rebel militant in the group.

The civilian court found the 31-year-old New York native guilty of "terrorist collaboration" with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA.

Berenson, who stood calmly while the verdict was read, was found guilty of aiding 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 instructed Berenson to stand while a court clerk read out a chronology of the case against her before a sentence would be handed out.

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."

The prosecution has asked for a 20-year sentence.

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.

Five Lost Years

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 MRTA.

Today's proceeding capped a high-profile trial in which Berenson adamantly proclaimed her innocence and criticized Peru's judicial system.

Prior to her statement, 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.

Exorcising the Ghost of Fujimori

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 today. "I did not deserve this type of label."

Berenson complained that the civilian court was still applying the same draconian anti-terrorism laws decreed by Fujimori in 1992.

"This is a political trial," Berenson said. "Where is the presumption of innocence?"

Peruvian prosecutors argued that there was solid evidence of her guilt.

A Rebel Association

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 hideout. But she said she did not know her housemates were rebels.

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 has been blamed for the deaths of some 200 people since it took up arms in 1984.