More than four years after hooded military judges convicted American Lori Berenson of planning a rebel attack — raising an outcry from Washington — Peru’s military overturned her life sentence and cleared the way for a new, civilian trial, officials said Monday.
The 30-year-old New York native was found guilty of treason by the secret tribunal in January 1996 for allegedly helping the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement plan an attack on Peru’s Congress. The attack was foiled by Peruvian authorities.
The tribunal released a statement to The Associated Press saying that Berenson’s sentence was overturned on Aug. 18 and her case was passed to a civilian court on Thursday.
First public word of the decision came earlier in the day in a statement from Berenson’s defense attorney, Grimaldo Achahui, on Radioprogramas, Peru’s leading station. He said she would remain imprisoned pending the new trial.
“We have fought to the last moment so that she would be judged in a civilian court where she will avail of due process with all guarantees of a right to a defense,” Achahui said. “This does not signify that she will be granted liberty.”
Diplomatic Sore Thumb
Berenson’s case has been a sore point in U.S. relations with Peru. Washington has repeatedly pressed for a new trial, saying the secret nature of the court violated her rights. The U.S. government has also criticized as too harsh the living conditions she has reportedly been held under in Peruvian prisons.
“We have maintained that the trial proceedings against her did not meet due process standards,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman Douglas Barnes.
The decision came despite the insistence by President Alberto Fujimori that Berenson, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student, is a terrorist and will remain in prison.
There was no immediate comment by Fujimori’s administration about the move. After the announcement, he canceled a scheduled news conference.
Her parents have also led a campaign for her release that has raised international concern over the case.
Father Speaks Out
“Peru has now admitted that Lori Berenson was not a leader of the MRTA. It knows she was not even a member,” her father, Mark Berenson, said at a news conference in New York. “There is no basis in truth, or law, for holding Lori another day.”
Also at the conference was her mother, Rhoda, and their legal adviser in the case, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
“A fair trial on the charge of terrorism and on those of the lesser charges, is impossible,” said Clark.
During her first three years of her sentence, Berenson was held in the frigid Yanamayo prison, 12,700 feet above sea level in the Andes. Her parents said she frequently complained of sickness until she was finally transferred to Socabaya prison, 465 miles southeast of Lima.
Though Berenson has maintained her innocence, Peruvians caught in the crossfire of rebel violence during the 1980s and early 1990s have a difficult time sympathizing with her. She has been vilified by government officials and the media for her alleged involvement with the rebels — a violent leftist group best known for its invasion of the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima in December 1996.
The rebels held 72 hostages for four months before Fujimori ordered a bold rescue that saved all but one of the hostages. All of the guerrillas were killed.
Before her conviction, Berenson was presented to the news media in a wild spectacle during which she angrily screamed support for Peru’s poor and shouted, “There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA,” referring to the rebel group. “It is a revolutionary movement.”
The statement was considered by most Peruvians to be an admission of guilt.
Berenson and her supporters have maintained that she was not allowed to present evidence at her trial or to question prosecution witnesses.
The government maintains that secret military proceedings with hooded judges were necessary during Peru’s bloody battle with leftist rebels because civilian courts were releasing too many suspects and judges feared reprisals. The practice was abolished in late 1997.
Peru’s internal war against leftist rebels reduced dramatically in intensity after the capture of top rebel leaders in 1992, but more than 3,000 convicted rebels remain in Peru’s prisons.
Berenson’s case was the subject of an in-depth investigative story in The Nation magazine’s Sept. 4 edition, which appeared Monday on the U.S.-based publication’s Web page.
Drawing on never-before released Peruvian police documents obtained by the magazine, in collaboration with Peruvian journalists, the article claimed that the case against Berenson was hastily thrown together based on the uncorroborated testimony of a lone witness whose version was never challenged.
Although The Nation article acknowledges strong circumstantial evidence that Berenson was closely associated with the rebel group, it asserted that little strong evidence existed that Berenson was an MRTA leader or member.
Fujimori has faced increasing pressure to reform Peru’s damaged democracy since his highly questioned re-election in May, which was marred by irregularities and accusations of fraud. For years, reforming Peru’s judiciary has been high on the list of human rights groups.