American woman wins new trial in Peru, life sentence voided

LIMA, Peru - Four years after hooded military judges convicted Lori Berenson of planning a rebel attack - raising an outcry from Washington - Peru's military overturned her life sentence and passed the case to a civilian court, 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 written statement to The Associated Press Monday saying that Berenson's sentence was overturned on Aug. 18 and her case was passed to a civilian court on Thursday.

Berenson's defense attorney, Grimaldo Achahui, told Radioprogramas that Berenson would remain imprisoned pending 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.''

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. Her parents have also led a campaign for her release that has raised international concern over the case.

The new 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.

''We haven't had anything confirmed. Certainly, it's a great relief if the government of Peru has finally recognized that it was mistaken in its charges against Lori,'' said her mother, Rhoda Berenson, from New York.

''But any effort by the government to seek a new trial would clearly be wrong under all these circumstances and a further violation of fundamental human rights,'' she added.

Though Berenson has maintained her innocence, Peruvians caught in the cross fire 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.

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.

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.

Radioprogramas, Peru's leading news radio station, reported that military authorities had released a statement that the military tribunal overturned Berenson's sentence on Thursday. Military representatives were not immediately available to confirm the report.

U.S. Embassy officials in Lima, who for years have pressed for a civilian trial for Berenson, said they were trying to obtain independent confirmation of the radio report.


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