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An American 'Terrorist' in Peru: 'I Am Being Singled Out'

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Lucien Chauvin for TIME

American Lori Berenson, photographed with her son Salvador, on the day of her release from prison.

Lori Berenson, the American woman arrested on terrorism charges in Peru 15 years ago, should be happy. A judge accepted her petition for parole late last week and she was released from prison early Monday evening. She is living in a rented apartment in Miraflores, an upscale apartment in Lima, Peru's capital, has her 18-month-old son, Salvador, by her side, and her mother is in town from New York to help her settle in.

The problem is that all of this has happened before, back in May — and by August, Berenson was back in prison on a technicality. She could return to prison again, and this time it would be to serve another five years with no chance of early release. "It is scary," Berenson, 40, tells TIME in her first interview since receiving the parole. "I really feel that I am being singled out. So many people have been released and it has not been a problem, but now that Lori Berenson is out the world is about the end. I don't understand why this continues to be the case. It has been 15 years."

Berenson's story in Peru begins when the country was a radically different place. She arrived there from the U.S. in the early 1990s, as Peru was shaking off more than a decade of political violence at the hands of two radical groups, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and the Shining Path, and the military's attempt to stop the terrorists. A government-created Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported early this decade that nearly 70,000 people were either killed or "disappeared" during the internal conflict.

While Peru was struggling to escape from the violence and economic collapse, Berenson became involved with the Marxist-inspired MRTA. Most of the outlawed party's members were already in prison, but a few leaders were still at large and they had grandiose plans. She agreed to help by renting a safe house where armed rebels were trained; a plot to take over Congress was hatched. However, a raid on the house by Peruvian police foiled that plan. Berenson was arrested on Nov. 30, 1995, along with the MRTA leaders. And she was treated just like them: sentenced the following year in a military courtroom, judges wearing hoods and their voices distorted to protect their identities. She was given a life sentence without parole.

Her case has taken many twists since then. "There is nothing like my case," says Berenson. "It has always been so high profile. I think it is fascinating, but I don't understand it." José Antonio Nique, president of Peru's bar associations, has an idea why it stands out. "Lori Berenson is not a danger to the country, but she is unlike others in her condition. She is a foreigner, a gringa, and it has been easy to make her a scapegoat. There are sectors that are trying to win political points with her case."

Berenson's sentence was annulled in 2000 by then-President Alberto Fujimori. The government at the time claimed that it had received information that Berenson had not been an MRTA leader, so she needed to be retried. Her retrial in 2001, which lasted months, was the first in Peru to be televised. This time she was convicted of collaboration with the MRTA and sentenced to 20 years in prison. (While serving that new sentence, she met another MRTA inmate, Anibal Apari, and the two kept in touch after he was released. They later married in prison and their son, Salvador, was born in 2009. Berenson and Apari are now separated, but he continues to work as her attorney.)

Berenson applied for parole last year under legislation that allowed convicted terrorists to be released after serving 75% of their sentences. The parole process too has been full of twists. The law granting early release was repealed in October 2009, meaning inmates sentenced to prison on terrorism charges must complete their full sentences. But since she applied before the law's cut-off, Berenson's appeal was grudgingly processed through the legal system.

Berenson says she was surprised when Judge Jessica Leon granted her parole on May 25, 2010, and she was able to leave the women's prison in Lima's Chorrillos district on the condition that she remain in Peru for the final five years of her sentence. Anti-Terrorism Prosecutor Julio Galindo appealed, arguing that the judge had wrongly calculated work and study into time served, and that Berenson needed to serve her full term in prison.

Berenson and her lawyer were confident the ruling would stand. And so she enrolled in pastry classes in Lima and started taking on-line courses with New York University to become certified as a translator. Salvador, her son, was able to take daily walks in nearby parks.

She was wrong to be so confident. A large segment of the Peruvian press waged a daily war on her, putting her on the front page at least once a week for nearly two months. President Alan Garcia, who normally dominates the media when pontificating on any subject, was drowned out when he commented that he did not consider Berenson a threat to society. On Aug. 16, Galindo argued that Berenson, whose parole was granted after only 14 years and six months, needed to serve the remaining five-plus years. The three-judge panel did not rule on this central contention, but did order Berenson back to prison on a technicality: the apartment she moved to in May had not been verified by the police. She returned to prison two days later believing that the issue would be resolved in 10 days.

The anti-terrorism police verified the address, but Berenson remained in prison (along with her son Salvador). The process was dragged out by a prosecution's request to have Judge Leon removed from the case. That motion was eventually denied, but deciding it took two months. Then Leon convened a new hearing for Nov. 5 to rule on the address issue. She ruled in Berenson's favor, and also used nearly 80 more pages to dispute Galindo's objections concerning time served. Her decision listed case after case of other inmates in Berenson's situation who were paroled without much controversy.

Galindo responded by lashing out at Leon, calling her the patron saint of terrorists and alleging that she might be a terrorist herself, infiltrated into the judiciary system to set free dangerous criminals. He has since appealed her decision to the same three-judge appeals board that sent Berenson back to prison in August. Galindo said he expects a decision in 20 days, or roughly by the 15th anniversary of Berenson's initial arrest.

If the court rules against her, Berenson will have to return to prison, and she would not be able to file for parole again, because the law allowing that benefit has been eliminated. She would not be released until Nov. 30, 2015. "This is the final appeal," she says. "There is no reason for them to put me back in jail, but I am very concerned about what I have heard from the justice minister and the prosecutor. Anything could happen at this point," she says.

Justice Minister Rosario Fernandez has joined the prosecutor in berating Judge Leon, saying the judge made a serious mistake twice. Fernandez told reporters of theories that jail time for people who commit crimes of terrorism does "not guarantee a change in thinking. There is no guarantee that these people are released with a different mindset."

Nique, president of the bar associations, argues that Fernandez and Galindo are allowing their personal feelings to cloud their legal judgment. "Based on the criteria of some here, Dilma Rousseff [the president-elect of Brazil] would never have been elected president, because she was a guerrilla. Michele Bachelet would not have been president of Chile, because she was a political prisoner, and Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who spent years in prisons for terrorism, would not have been allowed to run. Lori Berenson should be allowed to get on with her life."