Peru: Rights Court Upholds Berenson Conviction

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (search) has upheld the conviction of Lori Berenson (search), a New York native imprisoned in Peru (search) for terrorist collaboration with Marxist guerrillas, President Alejandro Toledo (search) confirmed Thursday.

In an interview with Radioprogramas radio, when asked to comment on news reports of the ruling, Toledo said the court members "have ratified the sentence and I once again salute the court members. It is undoubtedly a great satisfaction and tranquility for Peruvian justice and all Peruvians."

Phone calls to Berenson's family in New York City were not answered, and no spokesman for Peru's court system was available to confirm the news reports. Jose Luis Sandoval, Berenson's lawyer in Peru, told The Associated Press that Berenson's legal team had received no notification from the court.

The court debated Berenson's appeal Nov. 24-25. Sandoval said the court was expected to notify her family and the Peruvian government on Thursday.

Berenson, 35, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (search) dropout, has spent nine years in Peruvian prisons in a case that has wended through Peru's legal system twice so far.

She appealed to the Inter-American court as a last resort after Peru's Supreme Court upheld a June 2001 conviction for "terrorist collaboration" in a civilian retrial.

Her legal team, led by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, argued, among other things, that her trial failed to meet international standards for fairness.

She was improperly tried twice for the same crime, Clark said, and faced hostile judges who relied on coerced testimony and tainted evidence from an earlier military trial. Berenson has denied any wrongdoing.

Peru is bound as a member of the Inter-American court to follow its ruling.

The international appeal was initiated in 2002 on the recommendation of the Washington-based Inter-American Human Rights Commission, which called for the restoration of Berenson's rights, monetary compensation for legal fees and personal damages and a general overhaul of Peru's court procedures and sentencing guidelines under its anti-terrorism laws.

The commission alleged Peru violated Berenson's human rights at both trials and by subjecting her to inhuman conditions during her detention from 1996 to 1998 at the frigid Yanamayo prison, 12,700 feet above sea level in the Andes.

After her 2001 retrial, Berenson was transferred to the Huacariz penitentiary in the Andean city of Cajamarca, 350 miles north of the capital, Lima.

The ruling comes at a difficult time for Toledo, one of Latin America's least popular leaders with approval ratings in single digits most of the year.

Toledo campaigned as a staunch supporter of democratic reform after the collapse of Alberto Fujimori's (search) autocratic regime in November 2000. Fujimori pulled Peru out of the hemispheric court in 1999 in defiance of an order to retry a group of Chileans convicted and imprisoned on terrorism charges.

Although Toledo supported Peru's return to the Inter-American court, an order by the Costa Rica court to release her could have had explosive repercussions in Peru.

Berenson maintains she is a political prisoner whose concern for social justice was distorted by authorities to look like a terrorist agenda, but most Peruvians believe she is guilty and see her as a privileged, meddling foreigner.

She arrived in Peru in 1994 after working as a personal secretary to a top Salvadoran guerrilla leader during peace negotiations that ended El Salvador's civil war.

In Peru she rented a house that she shared with a cadre of guerrillas.

Prosecutors said she played a supporting role in a foiled plan by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (search), or MRTA by its initials in Spanish, to raid Peru's Congress in 1995.

Burned into Peruvians' collective memory is her public declaration in January 1997, when she angrily shouted, "There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA. It is a revolutionary movement."

A military tribunal of hooded judges originally sentenced Berenson in 1996 to life in prison without parole on charges that she was an active rebel leader.

After years of pressure from the United States, Peru's top military court overturned the ruling in August 2000 and sent her case to a civilian anti-terrorism court.

The civilian court ruled in 2001 that Berenson aided the MRTA rebels by renting the safehouse and posing as a journalist to reconnoiter Congress alongside a top rebel commander's wife, who pretended to be a photographer.

She was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with time served. Her scheduled release date was in 2015.

She denies knowing her housemates were rebels and testified that she was preparing articles about womens' rights and poverty for two left-leaning U.S. magazines.

Berenson moved out of the MRTA safehouse house three months before her arrest and said she knew nothing about activities on the top floor of the house, where police discovered 8,000 rounds of ammunition and dynamite.