Pardon for Lori Berenson would be risky for Peru’s next president
LIMA, Peru (AP) – Lori Berenson’s supporters are placing hope in President-elect Alejandro Toledo, but analysts say pardoning the 31-year-old American would be politically risky for a new leader who does not want to be perceived as soft on terrorism or as meddling with the courts.
A Toledo spokesman said he had no comment on Berenson’s 20-year sentence or the possibility of a pardon for the New York native.
But the aide said Toledo, who takes office July 28, expected the issue will come up during a visit to New York and Washington next week to seek economic aid.
Berenson, who was convicted Wednesday of collaborating with leftist rebels, said Thursday she believes she will ultimately be vindicated.
”I’m no criminal and in Peru the problem is political more than legal,” she told The Associated Press.
In 1996, Berenson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for treason in a secret military trial for allegedly aiding the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, in a thwarted plot to seize Peru’s Congress. That conviction was overturned last August and the new trial ordered.
With the new sentence, Berenson is to be released in November 2015 – counting time served – then expelled from Peru. She is appealing to Peru’s Supreme Court.
Responding to written questions from The Associated Press, delivered to her in prison, Berenson said in a taped reply that she believes her release will come long before 2015, either through reforms to Peru’s court system, or through a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
”The Inter-American court isn’t going to stay quiet when the Peruvian government continues to use arbitrary laws, not reforming them,” she said.
”I honestly do believe I will get out,” she said. ”I think there is the possibility that there will be greater justice.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat who serves the Berensons’ district, said she will circulate a letter among her colleagues urging them to ask Peru’s president for a pardon. Rhoda Berenson, her mother, said rallies were planned in the two cities that will coincide with Toledo’s visit.
”When Peru announced it would retry Berenson last August, we hoped for an open and fair hearing. Instead, what she received was a public circus in which the verdict was a foregone conclusion,” Maloney said.
”I am hopeful that the Peruvian president will recognize that Lori has already served 5 years in prison under very harsh circumstances and will pardon her,” Maloney added. ”It is time for Lori to come home.”
Although the verdict was widely expected, the U.S. embassy in Lima acknowledged that Berenson received a public trial during which she was permitted to defend herself and confront her accusers.
She was convicted of aiding the rebels by renting a house that served as their hide-out and posing as a journalist to enter Congress to gather intelligence with a top rebel commander’s wife. Berenson acknowledged renting the house, but said she did not know her housemates were rebels.
If the Supreme Court does not overturn the verdict, Berenson’s supporters hope Toledo will issue a pardon.
But Peruvian political analysts noted that Toledo does not want to be thought of being soft on terrorism or as interfering in the courts at a time when the country’s fragile democracy is rebuilding institutions eroded by former President Alberto Fujimori, who used Peru’s judiciary and Congress as extensions of his autocratic rule.
”There is the primary issue of fairness. Why Berenson and not all the other prisoners?” said political analyst Mirko Lauer, referring to hundreds of others thought to be unjustly detained under Fujimori’s anti-terrorism laws.
”Letting Berenson go would deliver a message that you are potentially soft on terrorism,” Lauer said.
Berenson’s supporters contend Fujimori’s government had trumped up charges against Berenson to bolster its image as being tough on terrorism. They contend Fujimori’s anti-terrorist legislation, drafted in 1992, is draconian and should be thrown out.
But many Peruvians say that although hundreds of innocent people were wrongly imprisoned under his policies, Berenson was not one of them.
Mabel Roncal, a 39-year-old Peruvian executive, said she approved of Berenson’s sentence.
”There were many deaths, many families, even many children who died because of those terrorists. I would like to know what she would think if she were in their shoes,” Roncal said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker, refused to express an opinion about Berenson’s guilt or innocence, but noted that ”the court rendered its verdict after a public trial, free of the most egregious flaws in the military trial.”
White House spokeswoman Mary Ellen Countryman said, ”We hope the appeals process moves forward expeditiously.”
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