Peru: Lori Berenson paroled; hardliners outraged

New Yorker Lori Berenson was paroled from a Peruvian prison May 25 after spending 15 years behind bars, Judge Jessica León Yarango rejecting prosecutors' warnings that she remains a "dangerous" terrorist. In her ruling, León said Berenson had "completed re-education, rehabilitation and re-socialization," and demonstrated "positive behavior." Berenson, 40, and her year-old prison-born son, are to be freed in the coming days, reports say.

Former MIT student Berenson was convicted by a secret military tribunal in 1996 of "treason against the fatherland" (despite not being a Peruvian citizen) and sentenced to life in prison. Military prosecutors charged she was collaborating with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) in a plot to attack the Peruvian congress. She has always denied the charges. Her sentence was reduced to 20 years after she was retried in a civilian court in 2001.

Lawyers for Berenson claimed that her trial failed to meet international standards. In a 2000 CBS News interview, Berenson characterized her original trial proceedings as hostile and coercive, saying that she had faced a panel of hooded judges and that armed guards had aimed assault rifles at her and her lawyer's heads during the 10-minute proceeding. In 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights denied an appeal request to reiview its November 2004 ruling that upheld Berenson's conviction.

In 2003, Berenson married fellow prisoner Anibal Apari, who was serving 13 years as a MRTA guerilla. She gave birth to their son a year ago. Apari also acts as her lawyer. (JTA, NY Daily News, BBC News, Jurist, May 26)

The move to free Berenson has sparked outrage from hardliners in Peru's political establishment. Rolando Sousa, president of the Justice Commission in the country's congress, protested that Berenson was paroled under a presidential order granting limited clemency to those convicted by the military tribunals, which technically expired last year. He warned that convicted leaders of the Shining Path insurgency, such as Maritza Garrido Lecca and Osmán Morote, could be freed next.

Legislative Decree 927 was signed by then-President Alejandro Toledo in 2003, and 489 prisoners received early release before it expired in 2009. Current President Alan García denied that Berenson's release would be a precedent, and said that instating LD 927 had been an "error." (RPP, May 26; Peru.com, May 25; El Comericio, May 24)

Peruvian judicial authorities had long denied that Berenson would receive early release. There remain hundreds more prisoners still behind bars who were convicted by the military tribunals.

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