LIMA, Peru – If 15 years in prison have done anything to Lori Berenson, they have made the once strident revolutionary guarded and wary, reluctant to utter anything that could get her sent back behind bars.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Berenson said she is deeply troubled at having become Peru's "face of terrorism." Its most famous prisoner, she is also a politically convenient scapegoat, she says.
Peru's top anti-terrorism prosecutor has asked an appeals court to revoke the parole of the New York activist, who turns 41 on Saturday, so she can finish out a 20-year sentence for aiding the leftist rebels of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.
That would mean separation from Berenson's 18-month-old son; children cannot live with their mothers in Peru's prisons past age three.
Many Peruvians blame Berenson personally for the horrors of the Andean nation's 1980-2000 conflict. Since her initial parole in May, people have called Berenson "murderer" to her face — one even shouting "child killer" at her.
"It's very upsetting, very upsetting," she said.
Berenson refused to discuss Peruvian politics; that could only hurt her. But she did say she regrets the youthful "mistakes" that landed her in prison.
She wants only return to her New York, where her parents are university professors, and devote herself to Salvador.
The child was conceived with Tupac Amaru militant Anibal Apari, who is now Berenson's lawyer. The couple met in prison in 1997, had a "letter romance" and married after his 2003 release. But the marriage is over, said Berenson, largely because Apari has no desire to leave Peru.
"I want to redo my life, live as a normal person," Berenson said in the rented apartment in Lima's upscale Miraflores district. She said she hopes to earn a living as a translator. She has enrolled in a certification program at New York University, where her mother Rhoda teaches physics.
Salvador, his head a mop of dark curls, played intently nearby, interrupting the interview to grab a reporter's pen and mimic his note-taking. He later pressed a Dr. Seuss book into his mother's hands.
Momentarily at ease — the interview was clearly stressful for her — the bespectacled Berenson tenderly recited the English-language book to her son.
Since first being paroled in May, Berenson and Salvador have lived a nerve-racking existence. They were returned to prison in August after an appeals court ruled she had failed to get police approval of her domicile. Last Friday, the judge who initially paroled her reinstated it.
By law, Berenson must remain in Peru until her full sentence lapses — unless President Alan Garcia decides to commute it.
After Berenson's initial parole, Garcia said he thought she'd paid her debt and represented no threat. But senior ministers in his government have since been less sympathetic, and the local press is largely hostile.
Garcia has said he will take no action until the legal case runs its course.
Prosecutor Julio Galindo told the AP on Wednesday that he doesn't believe Berenson is truly repentant.
"For us, there remains a danger of her participation" in rebel groups, he said.
He also contends Berenson's parole could set a precedent for the early release of terrorists convicted of violent crimes.
Peru remains deeply scarred from a conflict that claimed some 70,000 lives.
Its gaping inequalities brought the young Berenson to Peru from El Salvador, where she had worked for the country's top rebel commander during negotiations that led to a 1992 peace accord.
The Tupac Amaru was a lesser player in Peru's conflict and Berenson sought it out, she told the AP, because it was similar to many other revolutionary movements in Latin America. In the 1980s, it had a Robin Hood aura, was known for hijacking grocery trucks and distributing food to the poor. It never set off car bombs or engaged in the merciless slaughter of thousands for which the Shining Path rebels were known. But the Tupac Amaru did turn to kidnappings and selective killings.
Berenson was arrested in 1995 leaving Peru's Congress building alongside the wife of the movement's leader and was accused of helping it plan an armed takeover of the legislature. Paraded before the press, a red-cheeked Berenson, then 26, bellowed angrily that the rebels weren't terrorists but revolutionaries.
Berenson told the AP she'd been "impulsive" and "immature" that day,
But she insisted she never actually joined the rebels — or even so much as touched a firearm. "I've never even hit anyone," she said.
"I've made mistakes in my life. I've done stupid things. But I didn't have anything to do with the plan to take Congress."
She did admit helping the group rent the safe house where authorities seized a cache of weapons after a shootout with rebels. But she insisted she didn't know guns were being stored there.
Asked about whether her years in prison had changed her, Berenson said she came to believe that violence only begets violence and change can be effected peacefully.
In 1996, a military court of hooded judges had convicted Berenson of treason and sentenced her to life in prison — deeming her a movement leader.
"It made me laugh," Berenson said of the sentence.
The U.S. lobbied hard for a civilian retrial, which Berenson eventually got in 2001.
Denis Jett, who was U.S. ambassador at the time, told the AP in May that it was important Berenson have a fair trial. He said he believed she didn't commit terrorist acts but "knowingly, actively, willingly, enthusiastically" supported the Tupac Amaru, including collecting intelligence for the taking of Congress.
Berenson had few complaints about her imprisonment.
She said she suffered circulatory problems while in the frigid Yanamayo penitentiary on a bleak plateau 12,700 feet in the Andes the first three years.
As a foreigner, she received preferential treatment in health care, Berenson said.
But as Peru's best-known expat prisoner she also frequently got over-the-top security details, she said.
When she had back surgery last year to fuse three vertabrae together she emerged to find five police officers on guard.
"I was in no condition to run. It made no sense," she said.
Riot police were posted in front of Berenson's building on Monday night after her release, but were gone by the next day.
Berenson was still on edge over her relations with neighbors and the hostile Peruvian public in general, but she relaxed and smiled broadly recalling how three people shouted "hello" to her in downtown Lima on Tuesday when she went to court to sign some legal papers.
The salutations were warm, not sarcastic.
"It surprised me," she said. "I didn't imagine it could happen."