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Lori Berenson returns to U.S. from Peru for holiday visit

December 20, 2011 | 10:03 am


Lori Berenson returned to the United States Tuesday morning for the first time after spending 15 years in a Peruvian prison for supporting revolutionary groups during a brutal civil war.

Now 42, Berenson arrived with her 2-year-old son, Salvador, at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, was greeted by her parents and a taken to a waiting car to go to Manhattan. She did not speak with the gaggle of reporters.

Rhoda Berenson, Lori’s mother and Salvador’s grandmother, earlier clutched a Bloomingdale's bag containing a winter coat for her grandson.

“We are looking forward to the first holiday at home in a long, long time and many relatives who haven't met Salvador are excited to see him,” she told the Associated Press. “This is not a political time; this is a time for family, friends and holidays.”

Mark Berenson told the news agency that his daughter was looking forward to showing her son around New York City and acquainting him with Hanukkah traditions. He said the toddler loves snow, which he has rarely seen in Peru.

To some, Berenson was the face of a social activist in Latin America while others saw her as the face of modern terrorism years before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

She was a college student when she became involved in social justice issues in Latin America, first in El Salvador where she worked with rebels on the 1992 peace accords. From there, she moved on to Peru, where a fierce civil war between the government and rebels eventually claimed about 70,000 lives.

She became involved with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, a junior group to the Maoist Shining Path, which was the leading proponent of revolutionary violence in Peru. Tupac Amaru grew from a group that distributed food for the poor to a more violent entity that was responsible for the 1996 raid on the Japanese Embassy in Lima where 72 hostages were held for months before a government raid killed the rebels.

Berenson had finished a visit to the Peruvian Congress when she was pulled off of a bus in 1995 and accused of helping plan an attack that never took place. She was also charged with collaborating with the terrorist group, some of whose armed members stayed in the house she rented.

Berenson was never convicted of any violent act but was judged guilty by a military tribunal in 1996 of supporting the Tupac Amaru and sentenced to life in prison. The judge wore a hood to hide his identity.

“It would be nice if people didn't see me as the face of terrorism, but I can't change that. I live with it. It's not easy, especially because I don't think that I'm a terrorist,” Berenson said at the time.

Her conviction ignited human rights groups around the world and in the United States who saw it as a flagrant violation of her legal rights because she was unable to examine the government’s evidence.

Under pressure from human rights groups and the U.S. government, and following a change in the Peruvian government in 2000, Berenson’s conviction was overturned and she received a new trial in a civilian court. She was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In November 2010, she was paroled and ordered to stay in Peru.

A court approved her departure to New York but she must return to Peru by Jan. 11. Peruvian prosecutors fought the ruling, arguing there was no way to guarantee that she would return as promised.


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-- Michael Muskal