A panel of hooded military judges sat speaking through microphones that distorted their voices. The verdict: guilty as charged. Twenty-six-year-old Lori Berenson's fate was sealed. She was sentenced to life in prison on January 11, 1996 for treason against the fatherland: Peru.
Lori Berenson grew up the daughter of university professors in New York, attending high school with Jennifer Aniston and Cherâ€™s daughter, Chastity Bono. But eventually this upper-middle class girl would trade in her anthropology classes for social causes. Berenson dropped out of MIT and headed to Central America where she picked up a different kind of education, losing friends to the brutality of El Salvador's National Guard and working with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and the Salvadoran Popular Forces of Liberation.
Her curiosity about different cultures eventually led her to Peru in 1994. Her traveling companion was Pacifico Castrellon. He was deeply involved in the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), one of the most wanted and watched terrorist groups in Peru. Berenson would later claim he was a Panamanian whom she met by chance in an art gallery in Panama City. Castrellon would claim their trip to Peru was arranged by the MRTA rebels and on their way to Peru they met with MRTA leader NÃ©stor Cerpa in Ecuador.
In Peru, Berenson leased a large house in the suburbs of Lima with Castrellon. This house would be the headquarters for the MRTA, storing seven automatic rifles with over 8,000 rounds of ammunition, 100 hand grenades and over 2,000 sticks of dynamite. Berenson claimed she knew nothing of this. She also claimed that she knew nothing of the members' involvement with the MRTA who lived in her house. In August 1995, she moved out of the house, and rented her own apartment in Lima. Guards say they do not recall seeing any MRTA members enter her new residence, and her activity appeared to be normal.
Berenson was able to obtain assignments from two U.S. publications, Modern Times and Third World Viewpoint, to work as a freelance journalist. She secured appropriate press credentials in Lima. However, Berenson actually never wrote anything for these publications, and some think she set up these assignments as a cover for what she was really doing: terrorist activities.
On November 30, 1995, Berenson was arrested along with Nancy Gilvonio, the wife of the MRTA leader Cerpa, while riding a bus in Lima after leaving Peru's Congress. The day after her arrest, Berenson's house was raided by security forces and a coded floor plan of Congress allegedly sketched by Berenson and a forged Peruvian election ID card bearing her photo were among the evidence seized.
Thirteen months later, Cerpa led a takeover of the Japanese Ambassaor's Lima residence. The MRTA rebels held 72 hostages for four months. They demanded freedom for hundreds of imprisoned comrades, with Berenson being number three on their list.
After Berenson's original trial in 1996, she was retried under lesser charges, due to international pressure. She was found guilty of collaboration. In prison, Berenson was subjected to horrific living conditions and became chronically ill. She was eventually moved to a lower elevation prison where her health problems seemed to improve.
In 2003, she married Anibal Apari, a paroled MRTA member whom she met when both were serving time at Yanamayo prison. Apari was allowed conjugal visits and, in May 2009, Berenson gave birth to a baby boy, who lived with her in prison.
Berenson's case went to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, in 2002. Even though there have been many issues in her case regarding human rights and law, such as double jeopardy and due process, the court upheld the second ruling of the Peruvian Supreme Court. Former U.S. Ambassador to Peru, Dennis Jett, said the reason is simple: "She isn't innocent." Guilty or innocent, the courts issued Berenson a 20-year term in prison, minus time already served.
On May 24, 2010, after serving 15 years of her sentence, Peruvian courts issued Berenson a conditional release on parole; one that requires her to remain in Peru until the completion of her sentence on November 29, 2015.
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