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Peru to free Lori Berenson

Lori Berenson, an American who has spent more than 14 years in Peruvian prisons on terrorism charges, is expected to be released on parole as early as Thursday, the national prisons institute said Wednesday.

The announcement followed a court ruling Tuesday granting Berenson’s request for parole. Judge Jessica Leon ordered her to remain in Peru until 2015, when her sentence ends.

“I’m very happy. I am going to have three glasses of wine,” her father, Mark Berenson, told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

But the parole decision drew criticism from many Peruvians who harbor grim memories of the 1990s, when terrorist groups kept most of the nation in fear.

President Alan Garcia on Wednesday described the court’s decision to release Berenson as an “error” that he hopes does not set a precedent for other former insurgents still in jail.

Berenson, daughter of New York college professors and a former MIT student, was convicted by a military court in 1996 and originally sentenced to life in prison as an accomplice to plans by the leftist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement to attack the Peruvian Congress building and take hostages.

During her confinement, Berenson, now 40, has been accused by prison authorities of disruption and “fomenting a lack of discipline” among inmates. In 2003, she married her attorney, Anibal Apari Sanchez, and gave birth to a son last year.

Apari is running for mayor of a Lima suburb and on Wednesday didn’t discount including his wife in the campaign if the terms of her parole allowed it.

“I want to guarantee the public that Lori reincorporating herself into the community represents no risk,” Apari told reporters. Apari is also a former member of the Tupac Amaru movement.

At her trial, Berenson was accused of producing a rough blueprint of the Congress building to aid rebels in the takeover. Her family’s efforts to reduce her sentence or have her transferred to a U.S. prison were undercut when, at a public news appearance, she clenched her fist and defiantly described the movement as a revolutionary, not a criminal, group.

The trial amid open warfare between the government of President Alberto Fujimori and leftist revolutionary groups such as the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path. Fujimori refused to pardon her.

Public opinion in Peru remains strongly anti-rebel and talk shows featured officials and citizens expressing their disagreement with the pending release. In the 1980s and 1990s, Shining Path and Tupac Amaru guerrillas kidnapped and killed many businessmen and officials and together once controlled a third of the country.

A Tupac Amaru takeover of the Japanese Embassy in December 1996 ended four months later with a bloody government operation in which all the guerrillas and several hostages were killed.

Judge Maximiliano Cardenas Diaz of the National Judicial Council told a radio reporter Wednesday that Berenson should be returned to jail if she commits the slightest infraction while on parole.

“She is a danger to society because she has not changed her mentality as other [rebel parolees] have,” Cardenas Diaz said.

Monsignor Luis Bambaren of the Peruvian Bishops Conference described Berenson as a “threat to society” because she hadn’t repented of her support for Tupac Amaru guerrillas. He said it would be better for Peru if she were permitted to leave the country during her parole.

Yehude Simon, a former Cabinet minister, said on a radio program that Berenson should apologize to Peru.

“Asking forgiveness doesn’t diminish you,” Simon said. “It enlarges you and is a first step along the way to reconciliation.”

Leon reported from Lima and Kraul from Bogota.


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