Lori Berenson Walks Out of Peruvian Prison Smiling

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Lori Berenson, smiles after leaving prison on parole next to her husband and attorney Anibal Apari, in Lima on Thursday.

    Activist Lori Berenson walked out of prison smiling Thursday but got a chilly reception from her new neighbors after serving three-quarters of a 20-year sentence for aiding leftist rebels.

    Now 40, the New Yorker spent more than a third of her life behind bars — getting married, giving birth, undergoing back surgery — but never denouncing the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement she was convicted of abetting.

    When she was arrested in November 1995 with the wife of the group's leader, prosecutors said Berenson was helping it plot a takeover of Peru's Congress that never happened. The following month, police found a forged ID card bearing her photo in a raid on a rebel safe house.

    But Berenson apparently became less strident over the years, many of them spent in frigid prisons in the high Andes. Documents her defense team provided to the judge who granted her parole Tuesday said Berenson had "recognized she committed errors" getting involved with the rebels.

    A year after Berenson's arrest, the Tupac Amaru gained notoriety when 13 of its members stormed the Japanese ambassador's residents and seized hostages. Among their demands was Berenson's release. The standoff ended 126 days later with all the rebels killed.

    Berenson's release Thursday from Santa Monica women's prison was a tempest in itself. She squeezed through a horde of reporters into a car driven by her husband and attorney, Anibal Apari, to be driven to the Lima apartment where she is to reside.

    Two Peruvian reporters jumped into the car, which had a minor collision a block away with a TV channel's vehicle.

    Their couple's son, Salvador, who has been living with his mother since his birth a year ago, was taken to the apartment separately by Berenson's parents, who flew in from New York City on Wednesday.

    The judge who granted Berenson parole said she must stay in Lima until her sentence ends in November 2015. But Peru's justice minister, Victor Garcia, told the Radioprogramas network Thursday that the Cabinet could decide to commute the sentence and expel Berenson.

    "This is a really nasty situation for Peruvians," Garcia said, suggesting the government was not necessarily pleased Berenson had been paroled. President Alan Garcia said Tuesday that it was not his place to comment on whether he considered the judge's decision appropriate.

    It was unclear whether any other legal problems could complicate Berenson's eventual return to the United States. U.S. Embassy spokesman James Fennell said he could not comment on the case due to privacy laws.

    Many Peruvians were unhappy with Berenson's release.

    "Go away, terrorist!" shouted 42-year-old Carol Philips as Berenson and Apari pushed their way through a throng of journalists to get into the apartment building in the upscale Miraflores neighborhood where Berenson is to live.

    Her parents told The Associated Press they came not just for the joy of their daughter's release but also to help childproof the apartment.

    "I don't know whose idea it was to put this terrorist here as a neighbor," said another neighbor, Rene Vela.

    Berenson appeared calm, almost bemused, as she sat for some five minutes in the Apari's car outside the apartment. She wore dangling bead earrings, a khaki green button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up and carried a black bag with blue straps.

    She did not speak to reporters.

    The Miraflores district mayor, Manuel Macias, told reporters Berenson should find a home elsewhere.

    "The way out of this perhaps is for her expulsion from the country," he said.

    The judge who paroled Berenson said she had "completed re-education, rehabilitation and re-socialization" and demonstrated "positive behavior."

    Berenson has long maintained she was a political prisoner and not a terrorist. She shouted to reporters in her first public appearance after her November 1995 arrest: "There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA. It is a revolutionary movement."

    Berenson's parole request said she planned to work as a translator and a dessert chef.

    Her father, Mark, told the AP Thursday before his daughter's release that he was anxious about her health, particularly her back, for which she underwent a seven-hour surgery in November.

    Her son was delivered by Caesarean section in May 2009 because of the woman's degenerative back ailment, which Mark Berenson attributed to lifting 20-kilogram (40-pound) sacks of flour in the bakery she ran while at Huacariz prison, 850 kilometers (530 miles) northeast of Peru's capital, Lima.

    She was transferred to the Lima prison in January 2009 and gave birth four months later.

    Berenson's work at the bakery was cited as an example of her good behavior during the parole hearing.

    "Her health is not good," Mark Berenson said. "All the pains came back and the surgeon saw her two weeks ago and he's very unhappy.

    "He wants her to go through a million more tests because they're worried about potential nerve damage," he added. "You see her and her posture is twisted."

    Berenson's parents said their daughter and Apari would be legally separating and Lori would raise Salvador as a single mother.

    Their daughter dropped out of the Massachussetts Institute of Technology in 1989 to pursue a passion for social justice.

    After a time in Central America — she worked as private secretary to El Salvador's top rebel commander during peace negotiations there — she traveled to Peru in 1994.

    Berenson named her son after that commander, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who is now his country's vice president.

    After her arrest, Berenson was initially accused of being a leader of the MRTA, which bombed banks and kidnapped and killed civilians but was nowhere near as violent as the better-known Shining Path insurgency.

    Berenson was convicted of treason by a military court in 1996. But after an intense campaign by her college professor parents she was retried in a civilian court in 2000. It convicted Berenson of the lesser crime and reduced her sentence to 20 years.

    The U.S. State Department had pushed hard for the civilian trial, saying Berenson was denied due process by the military tribunal. Her case soured relations between the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton and that of former Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori.

    Fujimori stepped down in disgrace in 2000 before Berenson's retrial, and is now an inmate in state custody on convictions for crimes including murder, kidnapping and corruption.