- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

LIMA, Peru — An international court this month could order the release of American terror accomplice Lori Berenson, creating unrest in an already unstable justice system and a political dilemma for President Alejandro Toledo.

Last week, Peruvian Foreign Minister Manuel Rodriguez said his country would defy the court if it ordered the release of Berenson.

“In no case would any ruling be observed that recommends freedom of people accused of terrorism in Peru,” he told reporters.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica was to deliberate Berenson’s case for two days ending yesterday. A decision on the case could be announced by the end of the month.

Nine years ago this month, Berenson was arrested stepping off a bus in Lima. She was convicted on terrorism charges by a Peruvian military court weeks later and has been in jail since then.

“It would destroy everything,” Marco Ibazeta, a former anti-terrorism judge who had presided over Berenson’s civilian retrial, said of the potential court-ordered release.

Although the court has no power to enforce its decision, noncompliance is rare, said Margaret Popkin, executive director of the Due Process of Law Foundation, a Washington-based group that promotes judicial reform in the Americas.

“The court is formed by the member countries,” she said. “They have a strong tendency to follow its recommendations.”

Peru has defied the court before over its stance on anti-terror laws. In 1992, President Alberto Fujimori withdrew Peru from the court as it was about to hand down two rulings critical of his administration.

But it is doubtful that Mr. Toledo would follow a similar pattern.

He is facing abysmal approval ratings that severely limit his ability to take bold steps on touchy issues such as the Berenson case.

Mr. Toledo has held on partly because of the country’s relatively healthy economy — which has grown an unprecedented 37 months straight under his watch — and a favorable perception of his administration internationally.

Taking office in 2001, Mr. Toledo took a strong stand against terrorism and promised to uphold standards of human rights that were abused under the watch of the previous administration.

“So far he has gotten good marks, but this could put much of that progress in jeopardy,” said Cynthia McClintock, a professor at George Washington University who is a specialist on Peru.

Mr. Toledo has said repeatedly that he will wait until the court rules before making a decision about Berenson.

Most Peruvians are unsympathetic to Berenson’s plight and would object strongly if Mr. Toledo allowed her to go free. Many still remember a televised press conference days after her capture in which she denounced social problems in the country and defended the bloody rebel Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.

In 1995, a military tribunal overseen by hooded judges sentenced Berenson to life for taking part in a plan to attack Peru’s congress. The plan was thwarted. Berenson has repeatedly denied involvement in any takeover plot and said she was unaware that any of the people she was associated with had been planning attacks.

Berenson was not allowed to cross-examine witnesses or present evidence in accordance with the harsh anti-terrorism laws put in place by Mr. Fujimori. After pressure from the United States, Berenson was given a public trial in 2001 and convicted on a less serious charge of collaboration.

She was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In that trial, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark represented Berenson. The cornerstone of his defense was that Peru’s anti-terrorism laws violated international standards of due process.

Berenson’s appeal rests on Peru’s definition of terrorism and the fact that offenders are punished equally no matter their degree of involvement.

To overturn her conviction the Inter-American Court of Human Rights will have to rule that Peru’s definition of terrorism is flawed, Mr. Ibazeta said. That would pave the way for hundreds of imprisoned terrorists to be freed. At the very least, because several thousand convicted terrorists are being held in Peruvian prisons, the number of appeals would swamp an already overloaded justice system.

One other option for the court is to rule that Peru seek to try Berenson a third time.

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