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Peru's Conviction of Berenson Criticized - 2002-07-24

Peru is firmly standing by its conviction of accused American Lori Berenson for terrorist acts against the government, following criticism from a watchdog group. Peru's government has now taken the unprecedented step of asking the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights to defend its judicial decision. The developments could lead to a retrial in the case.

A non-binding recommendation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights says Peru should pay Lori Berenson undisclosed damages for violating her rights during her civilian trial last year. She was sentenced to remain in jail until 2016.

Sebastian Brett is the Peru researcher for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. He says the criticism highlights the need for Peru's President Alejandro Toledo to repeal some of the country's draconian anti-terrorism laws, which sent hundreds of suspected terrorists to jail. "What this decision of the Inter-American Commission has done is brought forward this debate which was has been long delayed and neglected and now they're really going to have to do something serious and they're going to have to find a way in dealing with all the injustices committed previously," said Mr. Brett.

The Costa Rica-based court is part of the Organization of American States. Mr. Brett says its review of the Berenson case could lead to a new trial. "They could order the Peruvian government to order a retrial and start the whole trial of Berenson afresh and that would mean that the court would have to declare inadmissible some of the evidence that was allowed in the last civilian trial,the most recent trial, which was evidence essentially tainted by the kind of abusive police procedures that existed at the time," he said.

Ms. Berenson says she is innocent. She has been in Peruvian jails since 1995, when she was arrested and accused of being a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. Violence between the government and leftist rebels during the 1980s and 90s killed over 30,000 people.

The Costa Rica based court will now most likely begin a study of the Berenson case at its next session, starting August 22.