- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

LIMA, Peru Less than a year after Peru's top military court overturned her life sentence for involvement with leftist rebels, American Lori Berenson returns to court today to be retried before civilian judges for "terrorist collaboration."
The three-judge trial will serve as a test of Peru's judiciary, which was controlled for years by ex-spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos whose involvement in a bribery scandal brought down the government of President Alberto Fujimori.
Miss Berenson's parents, New York professors who have dedicated themselves to winning their daughter's release, claim a fair trial still is not possible in Peru.
"Even though Mr. Fujimori and Dr. Montesinos are gone, repressive statutes, procedures and rules still persist and most of the criminal justice system's personnel remain the same," Mark and Rhoda Berenson said in a statement issued at a news conference last week.
Prosecutors are seeking the minimum 20-year sentence for the 31-year-old Miss Berenson for her involvement with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, which is known by its Spanish acronym MRTA. Miss Berenson maintains she is innocent.
The trial is expected to last at least 15 days and it could take more than a month for the three-judge panel to reach its verdict. Under Peru's legal system, the prosecution may appeal, meaning whatever the outcome, the case will likely be decided by Peru's Supreme Court.
Miss Berenson, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student, was sentenced to life in prison in 1996 on charges of treason by helping the leftist MRTA plan a thwarted takeover of Congress.
But after years of pressure from the United States, Peru's top military court overturned her conviction in August, granting her a new trial on a lesser charge of "terrorist collaboration" by a civilian court.
The military court ruled new evidence showed she was not a leader of the rebel group, a necessary legal element to make the treason charge stick.
Interim President Valentin Paniagua, in power until a newly elected government takes over July 28, has worked to establish conditions guaranteeing honest polls. Elections are set for April 8.
Mr. Paniagua told foreign reporters earlier this month that conditions now exist in Peruvian courts for fair trials.
"With respect to due legal process, which concerns the lawyers and family of Miss Lori Berenson, they can be sure that they are guaranteed by the law," Mr. Paniagua said.
But former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who is acting as a human rights consultant for the Berensons, disagreed.
"Unless you reform the institution, changing personnel will not matter and tragedies of the past will be repeated," Mr. Clark said last week.
Mr. Clark said he has sent requests to, among others, the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights and Peru's Justice Minister asking Peru to throw out the case for reasons including double jeopardy.
Miss Berenson was swiftly condemned to life imprisonment by a masked military tribunal in 1996 after being nabbed on a Lima bus in late 1995 in the company of the wife of one of the rebel leaders.
Hours later, Peruvian police raided a house where Miss Berenson had once lived with MRTA rebels. The shootout left several MRTA dead and effectively quashed their plans to raid Peru's Congress.
Miss Berenson says she did not know her former housemates were terrorists.
Before she arrived in Peru in late 1994, Miss Berenson spent time in El Salvador, where she served as a secretary to a top Marxist rebel leader during peace negotiations there.
Prosecutors have charged that Miss Berenson not only knew what her MRTA roommates in Lima were up to, but was posing as a journalist to gain access to and reconnoiter the Congress.
The MRTA later made headlines when they led a four-month bloody siege of the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima.
At Miss Berenson's 1996 trial her defense was denied rights normally associated with due process, such as the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and present evidence.
International human rights groups have condemned Peru's military tribunals, which sent hundreds of Peruvians to prison.


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