Measured Support For Berenson

Lori Berenson, appears on exclusive 48 Hours interview, Oct. 19, 2000
The United States will say it hopes Lori Berenson's appeal will be heard soon in Peru. It will say that humanitarian considerations should be taken into account.

What it hasn't said, and won't say, is that Berenson is innocent of charges that she collaborated with leftist guerrillas.

Former U.S. officials say they aren't sure she is innocent.

"I don't know how anybody could look at the evidence and arrive at a different conclusion than she knew more than she's admitting to," said Dennis Jett, U.S. ambassador to Lima from 1996-1999.

Publicly, U.S. officials say it is not their role to judge the innocence or guilt of Berenson, convicted for a second time last week in Peru, this time by a civilian court. The first conviction, by a military court, was for treason. The second conviction was on lesser charges.

Both President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell discussed Berenson's case with Peruvian President-elect Alejandro Toledo during his visit Tuesday to Washington. Neither asked for a pardon or amnesty.

In addition to the rule of law, Bush asked that humanitarian factors be taken into consideration in a final resolution of the case, said White House spokeswoman Mary Ellen Countryman.

Toledo, who has repeatedly said he would not get involved in the case, hinted on Wednesday that some kind of clemency might be considered.

"First of all, I'm not president yet," he told reporters Wednesday. "Second, I am not going to interfere with the judicial system and, third, the judicial process still hasn't ended." But he added: "I'm not ruling anything out."

The 31-year-old New Yorker was sentenced to 20 years after a three-judge panel found that she helped the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement plan a thwarted takeover of Congress by gathering intelligence with a top rebel commander's wife. She also was accused of renting a house that served as the group's hide-out. She was acquitted of being a member of the rebel group.

A secret military court had convicted her of treason in 1996 without giving her a chance to confront her accusers. She was sentenced to life in prison and served five years in harsh mountain prisons. That conviction was annulled in August, leading to the civilian trial.

U.S. officials repeatedly denounced the first trial as unfair and called for her case to be moved to civilian courts. But saying the trial was unfair isn't the same as saying she was innocent.

Berenson, a former secretary to a Salvadoran rebel leader, admitted living in the house but said she didn't know her roommates were guerrillas. She said she was a journalist but had never been published. When she was arrested, a guerrilla leader's wife was with her as a photographer.

Arturo Valenzuela, a former high-level National Security Council official, said the circumstances of Berenson's arrest suggest she was somehow involved with the guerrillas.

"I don't think that anyone I talked to in the U.S. government doubted that," he said. "Te question is whether her involvement or her association with these people really merited the kind of criminal charges that were brought against her."

Berenson and her supporters have denounced the latest verdict, claiming it was politically motivated, that the judges were biased and that witnesses were coerced.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker last week said the new trial was "free of the most egregious flaws in the military trial." He declined further comment on the legal process, saying it would be addressed in appeals.

He also noted, "We haven't taken a position on her guilt or innocence in the process."

Gail Taylor, coordinator of the Committee to Free Lori Berenson, said she is not concerned that the U.S. government hasn't supported Berenson's claims of innocence.

"They're playing it cautious," said Taylor, whose group is led by Berenson's parents.

She said Jett and other former officials who question Berenson's innocence may be unaware of developments that support her case. "I think maybe if he were ambassador now, he would have a different opinion about it," Taylor said.

For Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., Berenson's insistence on her innocence, the length of time already served in prison and the flaws in her trials are reasons enough to release her.

"She has maintained that she's innocent and in our system of government, people are innocent until they are proven guilty," said Maloney, who represents Berenson's parents' district.

Toledo's election followed the downfall of Peru's hardline leader Alberto Fujimori, who was accused of manipulating the courts for political purposes.

A pardon of Berenson would be unpopular in Peru, where she is seen as a foreign terrorist in a country that suffered through years of guerrilla violence.

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