Nearly two months of freedom, even though conditional, ended on Wednesday for Lori Berenson, the New York woman who had been in prison in Peru on terrorism charges for nearly 15 years. A three-judge panel agreed with the state's prosecutor for terrorism cases that Berenson, 40, had not complied fully with the country's parole regulations. She now returns to prison to complete her 20-year sentence for collaborating with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a now-defunct far-left group that waged war on the government in the 1980s and early 90s. She will not be be released until November 2015.
In an interview with TIME, Berenson charged that the decision to revoke her parole was purely political, with politicians of all stripes distorting the truth to gain points for being tough on terrorism in the run-up to the 2011 general election. "I feel like a soccer ball being kicked around, with politicians saying this and that to hype up the case. I was in the news for nine straight weeks, on the front page so many times that I have to wonder about the purpose behind it. It is a hatred and it is not healthy. It is not healthy for me or the people behind it," she said. "The people orchestrating this know that I am no danger to society."
Her parole in May had sparked a huge outcry in Peru that extended beyond her case to the complicated issue of dealing with the country's legacy of terrorism, now that many inmates convicted on terrorism charges are coming close to completing their sentences. Nearly 70,000 people were killed in the war waged against the state by the MRTA and the much more violent Shining Path.
Berenson had been arrested in late November 1995 as part of a spectacular operation that included a drawn out gun fight between police officers and MRTA militants at a house Berenson had rented in Lima's upscale La Molina district. A military tribunal sentenced her to life in prison in 1996 as a "terrorist leader." The sentence was overturned in 2000 and she was retried in 2001, with the court handing down a 20-year sentence for collaboration with the MRTA. During her time in prison she met an MRTA member, Anibal Apari, who she married in 2003 once he was paroled. She had a child in prison 15 months ago. Now a lawyer, Apari also serves as Berenson's attorney. She now faces a wrenching decision about the care of her child.
In arguing for her to be thrown back in jail, Prosecutor Julio Galindo said at an Aug. 16 hearing that Berenson had not complied with a requirement that inmates serve at least 75% of their sentence before being eligible for parole. Her lawyer had argued that there were legal precedents, some dating back to 2006, of other inmates paroled without reaching the exact date of three-fourths of the sentence. But Galindo went beyond just the technical arguments of the parole law during his brief presentation, telling the court that Berenson had been a leader of the MRTA. He insisted that she remained a danger to Peru. He told TIME that he did not believe that Berenson was repentant for her actions or sorry for what she had done. "I am going to guarantee that she serves her full sentence," he said.
Berenson has apologized for her actions, telling the hearing board on Aug. 16 that she was sorry if her actions had caused harm to Peru. "If my actions contributed to political violence in Peru and the damage done by violence in Peru, I apologize for that," she said at the hearing. She also recognizes that she made a mistake coming to Peru in 1994. She said that she knew that she had rented the La Molina house for people who were "outside the law," but did not believe that they were doing anything wrong.
She had earlier left her studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work with El Salvador's FMLN, an insurgent group that had waged revolution on the Salvadoran government. The FMLN had entered legal political life by the time Berenson came to Peru, and the left-wing party now governs the country."I knew very little about Peru and that is why I thought it was very similar to Central America in the way, the reality of the way those situations were regarded. It might have been in years before, but certainly by 1994 it was not," she told TIME. "That was probably my biggest mistake coming here."
While admitting that she knew the house she rented was being used by MRTA, she claims she did not know the guerrillas had an arsenal inside or that they were training to lay siege to Congress. "It is certain I rented the house, it is certain that I had a vision of the world that allowed for the use of violence in extreme cases, but it is not true that I was part of a plan to take over Congress. I have never participated in a violent act," she told TIME on Aug. 16.
Berenson said that her views have changed in the years in prison and that today she no longer only has to worry about herself, but what will happen to her son, Salvador. She has to decide now whether or not to take him with her when she returns to jail and the three-person cell at the women's maximum-security prison in Lima. Under Peruvian law, women inmates are allowed to keep a child with them until he or she is three. "I don't know what to do. If I bring him back to prison it is very small quarters with three people to a cell. Even if it were only the two of us is not big enough and he has seen too much of the world," she said.
Berenson and Apari have signed permission forms that would allow her parents to return to the United States with the boy and that she said the best thing would be for him to leave but, she told TIME, "he is my son and I want to raise him, I want to be with him. He has been with me for more than two years in and out of the womb. We do everything together, so it is very hard thinking of him not being here."