Treason sentence in Peru draws little sympathy American got life term for terrorist activities

January 14, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LIMA, Peru -- When Lori Helene Berenson was convicted of treason in Peru last week and sentenced to life in prison for her link with Marxist terrorists, Washington's reaction held to a U.S. principle: The conviction should not stand because the woman, guilty or innocent, did not receive a fair, open trial.

Ms. Berenson was found guilty by a military judge, who was concealed behind a partition in a trial that was closed to the public. Her lawyers were not allowed to cross-examine witnesses or challenge key evidence.

But among Peruvians, sympathy was harder to come by. In a nation exhausted by its war against terrorists, many said flaws in the judicial process that convicted Ms. Berenson were less important than the evidence of her participation in the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, a violent, pro-Cuban group.

Prosecutors said Ms. Berenson, 26, who grew up in Manhattan and studied anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had played a leadership role in Tupac Amaru, stockpiling weapons and planning attacks, including an assault on the Peruvian Congress.

The State Department said it "deeply regrets" that Ms. Berenson was not tried in an open court with full rights of defense, although U.S. officials have not pressured the Peruvian government because Ms. Berenson asked them not to.

But Peruvian human rights and religious groups have fallen silent about Ms. Berenson's conviction, even though in the past they have sharply criticized Peru's judicial system, particularly its "faceless" judges, whose identities are concealed in terrorist trials to protect them from reprisals.

Political commentators here said Peruvians have lived so long with a corrupt judiciary that the ideal of a fair trial is a lost concept.

"There are a lot of Peruvians who feel that they should not feel sorry for this gringa when thousands of their relatives and friends have been convicted under the same judicial system for doing far less than Lori Berenson admits to having done," said Mirko Laurer, a political columnist here.

Thousands of Peruvians have been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment under the current judicial system, which was established in 1992 by President Alberto K. Fujimori in a crackdown on terrorism. In 1994, the military courts had a 97 percent conviction rate, rights groups said.

Mr. Laurer said the Berenson case should serve as a "wake-up call" for the United States. "This is an American tragedy and not a Peruvian tragedy," he said. "If the United States does not put pressure on the Peruvian government to change its judicial practices, more of its citizens are likely to be tried in these military courts."

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