LORI BERENSON: 20-year sentence for aiding Peru's rebels `unjust' - NewsOn6.com - Tulsa, OK - News, Weather, Video and Sports - KOTV.com |

LORI BERENSON: 20-year sentence for aiding Peru's rebels `unjust'

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LIMA, Peru (AP) _ Lori Berenson, an American held for five years in Andean prisons, was convicted in a civilian retrial of collaborating with leftist guerrillas and sentenced to 20 years, a maximum punishment that she denounced as ``unjust.''

Counting time served, Berenson is to be released in November 2015, then expelled from Peru. Her father, Mark Berenson, restrained by an American rabbi after the verdict, shouted, ``No justice! No justice!''

Berenson, 31, of New York City, stood ramrod straight for nearly four hours Wednesday evening as the sentence was read in the drab prison courtroom. She sat only briefly, as the three magistrates said they found ``convincing evidence'' she had helped the deadly Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, in a thwarted plot to seize Peru's Congress in 1995.

A former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student, Berenson was sentenced to life in prison in 1996 by a secret military tribunal on charges of treason. She was tried as a rebel leader.

After years of pressure from the United States, Peru's top military court overturned her conviction in August, paving the way for the new civilian trial on a lesser charge of ``terrorist collaboration.''

In a statement Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy noted that the new trial gave Berenson a chance to defend herself, but said it would have no further comment because the case was being appealed.

``I consider this an unjust sentence and I am innocent of the charges against me,'' said Berenson, asking that the sentence be struck down when lead magistrate Marcos Ibazeta gave her a chance to respond.

Earlier, in her closing statement, Berenson declared, ``I am not a terrorist. I condemn terrorism.'' She also denied being a member or collaborator of the rebel group.

The Tupac Amaru took up arms in 1984, at a time when Peru was besieged by near-daily car bombings, assassinations and shootouts between leftist insurgents and security forces.

Named for an Inca ruler who led a revolt against Spanish colonists in the 1730s, the Tupac Amaru has been blamed for about 200 deaths. It was overshadowed by the larger Maoist Shining Path insurgency.

The group, now all but defeated, used kidnapping, extortion and protection money from drug traffickers to finance its operations. It gained international attention for its four-month hostage siege at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima in 1997.

The insurgencies remain a painful memory for many Peruvians, who had little sympathy for Berenson.

In accepting the prosecution's recommended 20-year sentence, the court ruled that Berenson aided the Tupac Amaru 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.

``Everything leads to the conclusion that the accused ... was not a mere spectator. Nor was she distant from what was occurring around her in relation to the activities of the MRTA,'' the verdict said.

Justice Minister Diego Garcia Sayan said earlier this week that the government would respect the verdict and that Berenson would serve out any sentence in Peru, so for now a presidential pardon seems unlikely.

President-elect Alejandro Toledo, who takes office July 28, is to travel next week to the United States in search of economic aid. His spokesman said he had no immediate comment on the case, but it could come up during his stops in New York and Washington.

A Supreme Court appeal will take up to six months, Rhoda Berenson said from the apartment she and her husband rented during her daughter's trial.

Peru hoped the Berenson retrial would show how its justice system has improved since President Alberto Fujimori was ousted in November.

Fujimori declared emergency rule in the early 1990s to fight then-powerful leftist guerrillas. He set up a system of hooded military judges who dished out tough sentences to suspected guerrillas in trials widely criticized for lacking due process.

The government claimed the anonymity of judges was necessary to protect them against reprisals from rebel groups. Berenson was tried in one of those courts after her arrest in November of 1995.

Security forces seized the Tupac Amaru safehouse after an 11-hour shootout, capturing 14 presumed guerrillas and evidence of Berenson's alleged involvement, including a floor plan of Congress that authorities said she sketched.

Berenson and a rebel leader's wife were arrested hours before a military assault on the hide-out, leaving three rebels and one police officer dead.

Berenson has acknowledged renting the house, but said she did not know her housemates were rebels. She came to Peru in late 1994, after working as a secretary to a rebel leader during peace talks that ended El Salvador's civil war in 1992.

Accredited by two left-leaning U.S. magazines but never published, Berenson insists she was researching articles about women and poverty.

Berenson said Wednesday that she was used by Fujimori as a ``smoke screen'' to make himself appear tough on terrorism.

``They used me as a symbol of political violence and of terrorism for more than five years,'' she said. ``I did not deserve this type of label.''
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