The Homecoming of Lori Berenson (and Why Peru Wants Her Back)

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Henny Ray Abrams / AP

Lori Berenson, center, arrives from Lima, the Peruvian capital, with her son Salvador Apari at Newark airport, New Jersey, on Dec. 20, 2011

Lori Berenson prefers to remain anonymous, strolling the streets of her native Manhattan and maybe stopping for lunch, but it is nearly impossible for her to remain out of the spotlight. Berenson, 42, was arrested in Peru in November 1995 and sentenced to life in jail early the following year on terrorism charges. Thanks to encouragement from the Peruvian government, she instantly became a lightning rod for the country's anger over two decades of terrorist violence that took close to 70,000 lives.

She would pop up in courtrooms repeatedly over the years — when her original sentence for being a member of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) was overturned in 2000; when she was retried in 2001 on charges of collaborating with MRTA and given 20 years; when she married a former MRTA rebel in prison and had a son; when she was paroled midway through last year after serving 75% of her sentence. Each appearance provoked public fury — exacerbated by the fact of her being a foreigner and specifically an American.

The most recent flurry of attacks came Dec. 19, when Berenson was allowed to board a flight to Newark, New Jersey, with her 30-month-old son Salvador Apari to spend time with her family in the U.S. Berenson had to make her way through an army of reporters to get to airport security in Peru; a similar throng was waiting with her mother and other relatives at Newark airport the following morning. Passengers stared at Berenson but kept a distance. This reporter and a colleague from the Associated Press were by coincidence on the same flight. "I can't really say anything because whatever I say is considered awful. Everything gets twisted," Berenson told TIME. "I am going to spend time with my family and see relatives I have not seen in nearly 20 years and who have never met my son. We are also going to be here for my father's 70th birthday and the best gift for him is to spend it with Salvador," she said. "That is it, nothing dramatic."

She may be out of Peru, but there is a battle raging in Lima, the capital, over the decision to allow her to travel. Because the terms of her parole require her to complete the final years of the sentence in Peru, she must return to the Andean country by Jan. 11. She will be finally free to leave in November 2015. There are many who believe she is not going to return from the current trip to the U.S. And the debate has kept alive the legacy of terrorism nearly 20 years after the government virtually ended the threat.

The decision to allow Berenson to leave Peru, even if only for three weeks, comes at the start of a critical year in the country's long process of dealing with political violence. The coming year marks the 20th anniversary of the arrest of leaders of the MRTA and the much more violent Shining Path. Of the nearly 70,000 people killed in political violence between 1980 and 2000, more than half are directly attributed to the Shining Path, while 5% are attributed to the MRTA. Nearly all MRTA inmates have already been released, and the party's top leaders will also start leaving prison in 2012. Shining Path followers arrested with leader Abimael Guzmán will finish their sentences and go free starting in 2012. Most of the leaders, with the exception of four serving 35 years to life, will be released over the next five years.

In the meantime, the freed inmates of both the MRTA and the Shining Path are trying to form legal political parties. The Shining Path group, the Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights, is the furthest advanced, submitting more than 350,000 signatures to register as a party. The election agency ruled against the registration in late November, claiming the party espoused violence and hatred. An appeal is underway. (One pocket of Shining Path remnants in the southern jungle continues to resist; it killed 11 soldiers in 2011. President Ollanta Humala, inaugurated in July, has vowed to wipe them out by the end of his five-year term.)

Mark Berenson, who turns 70 on Dec. 29, said in a telephone interview that there would have been no uproar over the judge's decision to allow his daughter to fly to the U.S. if it had involved anyone else. He said he had documented evidence going back nearly a decade of other parolees, including some who served time on terrorism convictions, who were granted permission to travel and there was no outcry. "There was no special treatment by the judge, only special attention in the press because it is about my daughter," he said. He laughed at the speculation that she would not return. "Anyone who knows Lori knows that she is a person of honor. She would not compromise her principles by refusing to return," he said.

If Berenson did not return, Peruvian authorities could order her arrest through Interpol, the international police grouping, for parole violation. Peru would then have to begin an extradition process, and if Berenson is returned, she would go directly to prison to finish her sentence.

Peruvian politicians are not amused by her travels. Congressman Daniel Abugattás, Speaker of the 130-member unicameral Congress, called the court's four-page ruling allowing Berenson to travel "abhorrent" and demanded an investigation. Peruvian Supreme Court Chief Justice César San Martín questioned the judge who approved the decision and said he would examine if any legal procedures were violated.

Former Vice President Luis Giampietri claimed Berenson was not travelling to see her family, but to get money that the now defunct MRTA has in secret accounts in the U.S. He maintains that the MRTA, which kidnapped businessmen for ransom to finance their war against the state in the 1980s and early 1990s, has cash stashed in accounts in the U.S. and Europe. He had opposed her parole and now the travel permit, saying that she was much closer to the MRTA leadership than she admitted in her hearings. Giampietri said that if he were Berenson he would not return.

Berenson admitted in her parole hearing that she had rented a safe house for the MRTA, but she was unaware of the organization's history or its plans. Heavily armed MRTA rebels used the house to train for a planned attack that would have taken the Peruvian Congress hostage. The national police foiled the plan, arresting Berenson and top MRTA commanders. She has apologized repeatedly to the Peruvian public for any harm her actions might have inflicted on the country. But when she returns in January, she will be once again at the center of Peru's unending debate over terrorism.