Paroled American Berenson arrives in US from Peru

AP News
Posted: Dec 20, 2011 4:56 PM
Paroled American Berenson arrives in US from Peru

Lori Berenson, a New Yorker paroled from a Peruvian prison after 15 years behind bars for aiding a leftist revolutionary group, arrived in the U.S. on Tuesday for her first visit home since her arrest in 1995.

Berenson, 42, did not speak to reporters after landing at the Newark airport with her 2-year-old son, Salvador. They were escorted by police to a waiting car as the boy looked with wonderment at the gaggle of reporters and flashing cameras.

Earlier, Berenson's mother, Rhoda Berenson, clutched a Bloomingdale's bag containing a winter coat for her grandson as she awaited her daughter's arrival.

"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 said. "This is not a political time; this is a time for family, friends and holidays."

Berenson was arrested at age 26 and accused of helping plot an armed takeover of Peru's Congress, which she had entered by saying she was a journalist. The attack never took place.

She admitted helping the Tupac Amaru rebel group rent a safe house where authorities seized a cache of weapons after a shootout. But she has insisted she didn't know guns were stored there and never joined the group.

A daughter of college professors and a onetime student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Berenson was convicted of being an accomplice to terrorism. She won early release last year from her 20-year prison sentence.

She needed Peruvian court approval to spend the holidays with her family in New York City and must return to the South American country by Jan. 11.

Berenson boarded a Continental Airlines flight at Lima's main airport Monday, with many in Peru wondering whether she would come back. She told an Associated Press reporter while waiting for her flight that she intends to return to Peru.

"I just hope we don't get caught in a snowstorm," she said, joking that it would delay her return.

By law, she must remain in Peru until her full sentence lapses unless the country's president decides to commute it.

She refused to grant an in-flight interview to an AP reporter who was on the plane. She also didn't stop to talk to reporters after arriving at her parents' home in New York City.

Berenson has an acute distrust of journalists. Peru's media has been hostile to her, and she has been repeatedly hounded and mobbed by them, including having young Salvador frightened last year by a scrum of photographers and cameramen.

Berenson's departure capped three days of confusion after Peruvian authorities prevented her from boarding a flight to New York on Friday despite court permission, saying she lacked an "exit order." Peruvians wondered whether she was the object of government harassment or simply competing bureaucracies. Migration officials finally cleared her Monday to leave.

Her father, Mark Berenson, said last week that his daughter was looking forward to introducing her son to Hanukkah traditions and showing the boy around New York. He said the toddler loves trees and snow, two things he hasn't seen much of in Peru.

Anibal Apari, Berenson's lawyer, is Salvador's father. He is amicably separated from Berenson, whom he met in prison.

Peru remains deeply scarred from its 1980-2000 conflict, which claimed some 70,000 lives. For many Peruvians, Berenson is a nagging reminder of it.

The country's gaping inequalities drew the young Berenson to Peru from El Salvador, where she had worked for the country's top rebel commander during negotiations that led to a 1992 peace accord.

The Cuba-inspired Tupac Amaru movement was a lesser player in Peru's conflict and Berenson sought it out, she told the AP in an interview last year, because it was similar to other revolutionary movements in Latin America.

The group never engaged in the merciless slaughter of thousands as Shining Path rebels did, but it did carry out kidnappings and selective killings. In the 1980s, it was known for hijacking grocery trucks and distributing food to the poor.

The group most famously raided the Japanese Embassy in Peru in 1996 during a party and held 72 hostages for more than four months. Berenson was No. 3 on the list of "political prisoners" whose release it demanded. A government raid killed all the rebel hostage takers.

Berenson was initially unrepentant after her arrest, but prison life softened her. She was praised as a model prisoner.

Some Peruvians still consider her a terrorist and have insulted her in the street.

But she has also told the AP that, in a country where the gulf between rich and largely indigenous poor remains wide, she believes she is a politically convenient scapegoat.


Associated Press writers Frank Bajak and Martin Villena in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.