An American imprisoned in Peru for more than five years on terrorism charges took the stand in her retrial today and accused police of planting evidence against her.
"I am convinced police planted evidence in my apartment after my detention," said Lori Berenson, a human rights activist from New York.
"I am innocent of all charges against me," she said in a husky voice.
Press Packs Hearing Room
Berenson, now 31, was arrested in November 1995 on charges of abetting members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, known as MRTA from its initials in Spanish, in a bid to take over Peru's Congress, a charge she has always denied.
The former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student was convicted by a military court in a secret trial in January 1996 under the draconian anti-terrorism laws decreed by the government of former President Alberto Fujimori. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
After Fujimori resigned amid corruption allegations last November, Berenson was granted the right to a public trial in a civil court, which began Tuesday.
Today, Berenson accused police of inventing a statement they said she had made. She said they planted evidence, stole her possessions and ran up bills her credit bill after she was arrested.
Berenson, who was dressed in a simple light blue blouse, blue skirt and flat heels, kept her composure during most of the hearing. In a small victory for the defendant, she was was allowed to testify in the small hearing room in Lima's Lurigancho prison. On Tuesday, she was kept behind bars during questioning.
About 100 journalists and judiciary officials packed the chamber today.
‘I’m Not a Person Who Looks for Problems’
During an hour and 45 minutes of questioning, prosecutor Mario Cavagnaro accused Berenson of working with organizations linked to subversive movements in Central America before coming to Peru. He also questioned Berenson's assertion that she lived off her parents' education trust fund while doing volunteer work.
Cavagnaro accused Berenson of coming to Peru to help MRTA plan a takeover of Peru's 120-member Congress. The prosecutor said Berenson had met Panamanian citizen Pacifico Castrellon, traveled with him around South America and eventually rented a house with him in an affluent suburb in Lima. The house was later found to be a base for MRTA rebels, Cavagnaro said.
He called for a 20-year prison sentence and a fine of 20 million nuevos soles, equivalent to some $6 million.
Berenson denied any knowledge that the people she was living with were members of the guerrilla movement. She said she never saw weapons or military uniforms in the house.
She said the fourth floor of the house had been subletted and was sealed off from the rest of the house. "I never saw signs that anything out of the ordinary was going on," she said. Berenson said she later moved to an apartment.
The prosecutor said he found it hard to believe a rebel movement planning a major action would permit a stranger outside their group to live in the same house.
"I wasn't used by anyone, nor did I collaborate with them," Berenson said. "Socially, I knew them as people, not as members of the MRTA. I judge human values, and don't interfere with people's private lives. I have a great social conscience, you know that. I'm not a person who looks for problems."
Father Maintains Her Innocence
During her stay in Peru, Berenson took out a press credential with the Peruvian Journalists' Association to write for the publications Modern Times and Third World Viewpoint. She visited Congress several times with a photographer who later turned out to be well-known MRTA rebel Nancy Gilvonio, the prosecution said.
Berenson denied she had ever prepared maps of Congress or corrected articles written by MRTA members for the rebel mouthpiece Voz Rebelde (Rebel Voice), although handwriting tests done by police experts allegedly matched her writing.
"I can't comment on what I haven't seen," Berenson said.
Judge Marcos Ibazeta cautioned the prosecutor to limit himself to questions on facts, not evidence which the accused had not seen.
Berenson said she knew little about the MRTA before coming to Peru, saying only she believed the group had mass support among the population.
"Lori is innocent," said her father, Mark Berenson.
The elder Berenson, who along with his wife Rhoda has waged a five-year campaign for a new trial, has criticized this hearing as little better than the original summary trial. He said his daughter has not been allowed to see key evidence or be present during questioning of other witnesses.
The trial resumes Friday.