(IPS) – Nearly 15 years into a 20-year prison sentence served in Peru on charges of collaborating with left-wing terrorists, U.S. activist Lori Berenson is to be released on parole Thursday.
The decision by Judge Jessica León was based on Berenson’s admission that she was wrong to join the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), the smaller of two left-wing rebel groups involved in Peru’s 1980-2000 civil war.
The conditions set for Berenson’s parole include staying in Peru for the remaining five years of her term, monthly visits to her parole officer, and maintaining a fixed address and steady job.
The judge’s decision was announced Tuesday at a public hearing in the Chorrillos women’s prison in Lima, where Berenson, who was arrested in 1995 at the age of 25, is being held.
Berenson, a student of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, dropped out of college and went to El Salvador to work for social justice. She later went to Peru, where she wrote as a freelance journalist for two now defunct New York publications, Modern Times and Third World Viewpoint. The New York native is the daughter of retired college professors.
In her ruling, Judge León wrote that Berenson had “completed her re-education, rehabilitation and re-socialisation,” and was found to be fit for parole.
The prosecution and the office for cases of terrorism appealed the decision. “The release of Lori Berenson represents a danger because terrorists never repent; they return to their activities,” the government’s lead anti-terrorism prosecutor, Julio Galindo, told IPS.
“She also still has ties to people who formed part of the MRTA. Her husband, Aníbal Apari, the father of her son, is her lawyer. Apari served a sentence for having belonged to the MRTA,” he added. “There are doubts about her re-socialisation.”
Berenson married Apari when he was released from prison in 2003, and gave birth to her son Salvador in November 2009. Her parents said she and Apari are now legally separated.
The head of the APRODEH human rights association, Miguel Jugo, said however that all prisoners, convicted of any crime, have the right to rehabilitation, and that there is no reason this case should be an exception.
“The only person who can decide whether or not Berenson is fit for re-socialisation or is a danger to society is the judge, not agents of the government or ‘fujimoristas’,” Jugo told IPS, referring to supporters of former president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), who is in prison for corruption and human rights violations.
“The law is clear and must be respected. She has fulfilled all of the requisites,” he said.
Berenson was arrested in November 1995 by the counter-terrorism police as part of an operation against the MRTA, which is best-known for its 1996 takeover of the Japanese ambassador’s residence, where it held hostages for four months until a successful military rescue was carried out.
Berenson was arrested with Nancy Gilvonio, the wife of MRTA second-in-command Néstor Cerpa. With Gilvonio as her photographer, she had visited Congress several times in 1995 to interview legislators.
The police seized a floor plan and a scale model of the Congress building, and charged Berenson, Gilvonio and other suspects with planning a commando operation to seize lawmakers in order to swap them for captured MRTA guerrillas.
She was tried under harsh anti-terrorism legislation put in place during a state of emergency declared by the Fujimori administration, which allowed suspected rebels to be tried for treason by military tribunals.
Under this legislation, aspects of which were later found unconstitutional and were overturned, the U.S. activist was tried in a closed courtroom by a hooded judge who spoke through a voice distorter — measures reportedly aimed at the need to avoid reprisal.
Found guilty of being a leader of a terrorist group, she was sentenced to life in prison in March 1996.
Her parents, Mark and Rhoda Berenson, launched an intense global campaign for her release. In 1998, Amnesty International declared her a political prisoner. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared that the trial had violated her right to due process and did not live up to international standards.
Intense lobbying won her a retrial in the civilian courts, where in June 2001 she was convicted again, but on a lesser charge: collaboration with terrorists. She was given a 20-year sentence, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2002.
Berenson’s case was referred to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which also upheld the sentence in 2004, despite acknowledging irregularities in the trial.
Supporters of Fujimori in Congress lashed out at the decision to release Berenson on parole.
The chair of the congressional justice commission, Fujimori’s former lawyer Rolando Souza, told IPS that “the terrorists lost the armed conflict, but they won the legal war. They managed to get sentences overturned, eliminated life in prison, and obtained prison benefits. Berenson’s release is bad news for Peru.”