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Sat December 17, 2011
Paroled U.S. Activist Says Peru Won't Let Her Leave
Paroled U.S. activist Lori Berenson said Saturday that she and her toddler son were not permitted to leave Peru despite being granted permission in court to spend the holidays in New York with her family.
"They didn't let me leave and they're putting out this version that I arrived late," she said in a brief phone conversation with The Associated Press, referring to media reports citing unnamed airport officials.
Her lawyer, Anibal Apari, accused the government of making an arbitrary political decision to halt her departure. He said it had provided no official explanation for not allowing Berenson to board a New York-bound flight the previous night.
"An abuse of authority has been committed," Apari told the AP. "Administratively, you can't block a court order."
Phone calls to Interior Ministry officials seeking an explanation were not immediately returned.
Berenson, who was paroled last year after serving 15 years for aiding leftist rebels, was given permission to leave the country beginning Friday with the stipulation that she return by Jan. 11.
She had been denied such permission in October, but a three-judge appeals court on Wednesday overturned the lower court judge's ruling.
Peru's anti-terrorism prosecutor, Julio Galindo, told the AP that he had on Friday asked the court that approved Berenson's leave to nullify the decision because it violated a law prohibiting paroled prisoners from leaving the country.
He said he did not know if the court had acted on his appeal and Peru's courts spokesman, Guillermo Gonzalez, said he had no information on the matter.
Galindo's move was precisely the kind of action feared by Berenson's parents, who did not respond to phone calls seeking comment on Saturday.
The prosecutor had opposed letting Berenson out of prison before her 20-year sentence for aiding terrorism ends in 2015, arguing that it would set a bad precedent for the early release of others convicted of terrorism-related crimes.
Berenson's father Mark told the AP on Friday that he was "petrified" that negative local reaction could prevent the trip, including celebrating his 70th birthday Dec. 29.
"My worry is that there's going to be screaming to stop this," he said. Some Peruvians consider his daughter a terrorist and have publicly insulted her on the street.
Mark Berenson said his daughter had every intention of returning to Peru.
"As Lori says, if she doesn't come home, let Interpol arrest her," Mark Berenson said.
Peru could seek her extradition and return her to prison if she doesn't return in the allotted time, Gonzalez said.
A local TV station displayed video on Friday night of Berenson pacing nervously in front of a ticket counter, wearing a bulky black backpack, with Salvador in a stroller beside her. She wore pants and a brown polo shirt.
Berenson has been repeatedly hounded and mobbed by Peruvian news media, which has occasionally frightened young Salvador. Last month, one TV channel obtained her new address and showed video of her home.
"It was very dangerous," Mark Berenson said. "The (U.S.) Embassy complained."
"It's just not fair to Salvador or to her," he said. "They used her like she's a celebrity and she just wants to be a low-profile person and get on with her life and be a good citizen."
He said he would appeal to President Ollanta Humala to send his daughter home.
Humala could by law commute her sentence but has not indicated whether he might do so. The AP sought presidential palace comment but its calls were not returned.
Lori Berenson is separated from Salvador's father, Anibal Apari, whom she met in prison and who serves as her lawyer.
Mark Berenson said his daughter is looking forward to seeing relatives she hasn't met since her 20s, including his 96-year-old aunt, and that he wants his grandson, who loves trees, see the New York Botanical Garden's holiday display.
Since her initial parole in May 2010, Lori Berenson repeatedly expressed regret for aiding the rebel Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.
Arrested in 1995, the former MIT student was accused of helping the rebels plan an armed takeover of Congress, an attack that never happened.
A military court convicted her the following year and sentenced her to life in prison for sedition. But after intense U.S. government pressure, she was retried in civil courts in 2001 and sentenced to 20 years for terrorist collaboration.
Berenson was unrepentant at the time of her arrest, but softened during years of sometimes harsh prison conditions, eventually being praised as a model prisoner.
Yet she is viewed by many as a symbol of the 1980-2000 rebel conflict that claimed some 70,000 lives. The fanatical Maoist Shining Path movement did most of the killing, while Tupac Amaru was a lesser player.
Berenson has acknowledged helping the rebels rent a safe house, where authorities seized a cache of weapons. But she insists she didn't know guns were being stored there. She denies ever belonging to Tupac Amaru or engaging in violent acts.
In an interview with the AP last year, Berenson said she was deeply troubled at having become Peru's "face of terrorism."
Its most famous prisoner, she also became a politically convenient scapegoat, she said.
Associated Press writer Franklin Briceno contributed to this report.