LIMA (Reuters) - U.S. citizen Lori Berenson was freed from prison in Peru on Thursday after serving 15 years of a 20-year sentence for collaborating with a Marxist guerrilla group during the country’s civil war.
A native New Yorker who studied at the elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she had been in jail since being arrested on a bus in Peru in 1995 on charges of belonging to the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA.
Her release provoked controversy in a country still traumatized by a conflict that killed some 70,000 people. The MRTA was active in the 1980s and ‘90s when a larger insurgency, the Maoist Shining Path, also tried to topple the government.
Berenson, 40, was rushed into a waiting car outside a Lima prison and did not speak to a throng of reporters.
Her father, Mark Berenson, carried his infant grandson Salvador, who had been living in prison with Lori.
“I’m just happy that Lori and Salvador will be free and that justice has been served in Peru,” he said.
A military tribunal convicted Berenson in 1996 of belonging to a terrorist organization and sentenced her to life in prison, a verdict that was later overturned amid pressure from the United States and human rights groups.
At a second trial in civilian court, she was convicted of collaborating with the MRTA and given the 20-year sentence. Her family maintained she was a social activist who was wrongfully convicted and who never took up arms during a period of intense social unrest.
On Tuesday, court officials granted her parole, nearly one year after she gave birth to her son.
Her husband, Anibal Apari Sanchez, a former MRTA member who is a lawyer, represented her at the hearing. They married in 2003. Inmates in Peru are allowed conjugal visits, though the couple is no longer romantically involved.
Under the terms of her parole, Berenson will be required to check in with authorities once a month over the next five years and refrain from drinking alcohol.
Berenson will work in Lima as a translator while pursuing a dream of opening a bakery, unless officials decide to commute the rest of her sentence and deport her.
Neighbors in the wealthy Miraflores district where Berenson has rented an apartment complained loudly. “Terrorist get out!” neighbors yelled in front of the building where she plans to live. Two people who live there shouted insults at Berenson’s parents.
Although Peru’s President, Alan Garcia, said on Wednesday he respected the judge’s decision, the country’s vice president, Luis Giampietri, later called it “unfortunate.”
Berenson was arrested by the government of former President Alberto Fujimori, who led a tough counterinsurgency and is now in jail on human rights crimes stemming from two massacres he ordered a death squad to carry out.
At the time of her arrest, Berenson was with the wife of Nestor Cerpa, who in 1996 led a group of MRTA rebels that took hundreds of diplomats and government officials hostage at the Japanese ambassador’s house in Lima.
The crisis dragged on for months until then-president Fujimori sent in commandos who dug tunnels underneath the house. They killed a dozen insurgents in a surprise raid.
Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko Fujimori, a popular conservative lawmaker who is a front-runner in next year’s presidential race, called Berenson’s parole worrisome.
Ollanta Humala, a left-wing ultranationalist who plans to run for president in 2011 after nearly winning the 2006 vote, also criticized Berenson’s release, though about 500 people convicted of terrorism have been freed from jail in recent years.
Reporting by Enrique Castro-Mendivil and Pilar Olivares; writing by Terry Wade and Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Paul Simao and Philip Barbara