'Terrorist' US reporter faces 30 years' jail

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The Independent Online

Latin America Correspondent

Was she simply a caring, bona- fide journalist or a treacherous terrorist known as Comrade Lucia among Peruvian urban guerrillas? One way or the other, Lori Berenson, a 26-year-old New Yorker, is waiting to be sentenced by a Peruvian military court to 30 years in prison for treason.

Just as American editorialists and the liberal establishment were leaning towards defending Ms Berenson, she helped to answer the question herself in an angry statement to reporters in Lima, the Peruvian capital, on Monday. She did not admit belonging to the Tupac Amaru guerrilla group (MRTA), but defended it as a ''revolutionary movement'' and said she accepted that she would probably spend ''years in prison''. The 30-year sentence demanded by a military prosecutor is thought to be the minimum for treason. The maximum is life.

Paraded before the press for the first time by anti-terrorist police, a defiant Ms Berenson, who is accused of helping the guerrillas plan an attack on the Peruvian Congress, insisted that the Tupac Amaru guerrillas were non-violent. That, however, did not tally with the group's history of kidnappings, attacks on banks and embassies, the bombing of American- owned restaurants and shoot-outs with the army and police.

Ms Berenson, from Manhattan, is the first American to come before a so- called faceless judge in Peru. During her closed trial, which may last less than a week, she and her lawyer sit before a sheet of mirrored glass, behind which sits the military judge. The practice was initiated to protect judges from guerrilla reprisals.

Ms Berenson surfaced in Lima last year, as a reporter for the US-based magazine Third World Viewpoint, with accreditation from the Peruvian authorities. The magazine's editors said they considered her a bona- fide journalist.

Peruvian police, however, said journalism was a cover for Ms Berenson's links with the Tupac Amaru guerrillas, a much smaller group than the better-known Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). She was arrested on 30 November last year after a fourth trip to the Congress building in Lima. Police said she had been scouting the building for a planned guerrilla attack.

Hours after she was detained, anti-terrorist police laid siege to a ''safe house'' in Lima, detaining 20 alleged members of Tupac Amaru after an all-night shoot-out in which a policeman and three alleged guerrillas were killed. Police later displayed a huge arms cache which they said they had found in the house, and said they found guerrilla propaganda in Ms Berenson's flat.

She had, they said, travelled through central America with a Panamanian arms dealer, Pacifico Castrellon - who also faces a 30-year sentence - to buy weapons for the guerrillas.

At the news conference on Monday, Ms Berenson declined to answer questions but shouted a statement in Spanish. ''I love this country...'' she said. ''I am being condemned because of my concern for the hunger and misery that exists here. If it is a crime to be concerned with the inhuman conditions in which the majority of people in this country live, then I accept my sentence.''