Back on the stand

There are two defendants at the retrial in Peru this week: Lori Berenson and an antiquated legal system that dates back to Napoleon.

Published March 22, 2001 5:01PM (EST)

The trial of alleged terrorist Lori Berenson in Peru took a new turn this week, bringing to light once again a politically troublesome case. For the first time since she was convicted of terrorism in 1996, Berenson was allowed to publicly proclaim her innocence.

"I would like to make it clear I am innocent," Berenson said Tuesday in fluent Spanish to a panel of judges. The first day of the trial marked what many hope will be a second chance for the 31-year-old New York native, who now faces the lesser charge of "terrorist collaboration" in a civil court. But the stakes are high for both sides. A conviction could mean up to 20 years in prison for Berenson. And as state prosecutors try to prove their case against Berenson, Peru will face another sort of trial in the court of international public opinion.

Berenson was found guilty in a secret military court five years ago, at age 26, and was sentenced to life in prison by hooded military judges for allegedly helping the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, plot a takeover of the Peruvian Congress.

Largely as the result of a vigilant campaign by her parents and friends back home, Berenson's conviction was overturned last summer, but she has remained in prison. Peru hopes the new civil trial will help to clean up its tarnished international reputation after corruption scandals that led its former president, Alberto Fujimori, and his spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, to resign last year.

"Lori is an accused terrorist, but she is not a terrorist," her father, Mark Berenson, said through a translator Wednesday on Panamericana's morning news program. "I know she is innocent. God knows she is innocent," he said.

As he pleaded her case to the nation, he also pleaded with the Peruvian government, stating that "a person must be presumed innocent. It is up to the government of Peru to prove her guilty."

Human rights groups are already criticizing the legal proceedings in Peru, whose judicial system is based on the 19th century Napoleonic Code, in which an accused is presumed guilty. Berenson has to sit in a built-in cell in the courtroom, and to consult with her lawyer during the proceedings, she has to ask for special permission from the presiding magistrate. Her family attorney from New York calls the setup "Kafka-esque." But Berenson's Peruvian attorneys say they are optimistic about the outcome.

Berenson enraged Peruvians -- and alienated some would-be supporters -- back in 1996 when she publicly defended the MRTA's activities on Peruvian TV, saying, "There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA. It is a revolutionary movement." Her rancorous words prompted then President Fujimori's initial hard-line defense of her original sentence.

When Fujimori ultimately decided to overturn her conviction, it marked a capitulation to larger pressure from the Peruvian people -- pressure that finally drove him from office. Peru wants to put decades of car bombs, assassinations and corrupt politicians behind; Peruvians no longer want their country to be viewed as a black spot among the democratic reforms currently sweeping through Latin American countries like Chile and Guatemala.

In a story published in September, Salon national correspondent Bruce Shapiro wrote that despite the fact that Peruvian "courts do not meet internationally accepted standards of openness, fairness and due process," the retrial is still "good news" for Berenson, since it will focus so much international attention on the country's judicial system and the conflicting evidence against Berenson.

"It is Peru's legal system as much as Lori Berenson which is on trial," Shapiro wrote. "Through the unlikely combination of an American radical sympathizer, Washington's drug war and Peru's own factional politics, a country which just two months ago was an international laughingstock has an opportunity to redeem its justice system, and show itself capable of stepping past the overwrought emotions and laws which continue to afflict hundreds of similarly convicted but internationally anonymous 'suspects.'"

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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