Lori Berenson



On November 30, 1995, Lori Berenson,
an American citizen, was arrested while riding on a bus in downtown Lima,
Peru. She was charged with treason against the state of Peru—a legal
absurdity, since Lori is not a citizen of Peru—but charging her with
treason enabled Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori to have Lori tried before
a military tribunal, where conviction is virtually guaranteed, rather than
in a civilian court.


To no one’s surprise, the military tribunal convicted Berenson. The conviction
rate of the military court is nearly 100 percent, for reasons easily understood:
the accused is not allowed to examine the “evidence” upon which
the charges are based; the accused is not afforded an opportunity to rebut
either evidence or witnesses who testify against her; and the accused is systematically
deprived of the right to present exculpatory evidence of her own.


In essence, the “judge” (who remains hooded throughout the trial)
reads the file that is presented by the prosecution, inevitably finds the
accused guilty, and pronounces sentence—which is to say, he finds the
accused guilty to one degree or another. A gun held to her head by a hooded
soldier, 26-year-old Lori Berenson learned that her fate was to spend the
rest of her life in a maximum prison without the possibility of parole.


Lori was in Peru as a journalist. She was writing articles on the effects
of poverty on women in Peru for two New York publications, Modern Times
and Third World Viewpoint. The editors of both magazines verified,
in writing, to the investigating officials that she was, indeed, working for
them. The Peruvian government approved Lori’s credentials and declared
them legitimate, but now, having falsely convicted her, claims they were fakes.
Peru claims that Lori was not merely a member of a terrorist group—the
Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA)—but, preposterously, a leader
of that group.


The Peruvian government succeeded in portraying her innocent, open, and above-board
visits with members of the Peruvian Congress, whom she interviewed for her
articles, as terrorist scouting missions—despite the fact that there
is absolutely no evidence that she asked questions that could have been of
use to any opposition group, terrorist or otherwise, and abundant evidence
to suggest that she was doing exactly what the Peruvian government had said
she had a right to: pursuing her livelihood as a journalist.


While Lori may or may not have been interviewing members of the MRTA for her
articles—the facts are unclear—she has never been a member of that
group and no actual evidence that she is or was a member has ever been presented.
She has consistently and repeatedly denounced violence of any sort, and she
has maintained her innocence.


Indeed, all the alleged ties the Peruvian government has labored to establish
between Lori and the MRTA fall apart on even the most cursory of examinations.
A sampling of the most frequently cited connections between Lori and the MRTA,
and the truth about them, follows:


    • Lori
      was the tenant of an MRTA “safe-house.”
      Lori lived in an apartment
      far from this house. She was never a tenant of the safe house used by the
      MRTA. Her name appears nowhere on the house’s lease. (Lori’s lawyer
      has seen the lease and verified this fact.)
    • Lori
      was arrested in a MRTA firefight with Peruvian police.
      Lori was arrested
      on  November 30, 1995 while riding a bus in downtown Lima. There was
      a firefight between MRTA rebels and Peruvian police the next day, but by
      that time, Lori had already been in police custody for some time.
    • Lori
      was keeping a weapons fund for the MRTA.
      The Peruvian authorities found
      out that Lori had a bank account with roughly $50,000 in it and leapt to
      the conclusion, based on absolutely no other evidence, that it was a weapons
      fund. (A conclusion possible only if one had already decided that Lori was
      a terrorist.) If the Peruvian authorities had expended even a minimal effort,
      they would have discovered that this was Lori’s college money, in a
      trust fund shared with her mother, Rhoda; and that it came from royalties
      on a statistics textbook Lori’s father, Mark, had written. (Peru has
      since quietly backed away from this [even by Peruvian standards] insupportable
      accusation.)
    • Interpol
      and Ecuador’s police confirm that Lori met with MRTA agents.
      Both
      Interpol and Ecuador have said that this story was fed to the press by the
      Peruvian authorities. Gonzalo Salvador, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Ecuadorian
      Embassy, said, “If our authorities had known about such a meeting,
      they would’ve apprehended them. I believe this story was invented in
      Peru.”



In short, every connection the Peruvian government attempted to make between
Lori and the MRTA turned out to be false and could easily have been refuted
if Lori had been given a chance to defend herself.


A civilian trial would have afforded such an opportunity. But for reasons
one can only be speculate about, the Peruvian government—especially Peru’s
autocratic leader, Alberto Fujimori—wanted to ensure that Lori would
be convicted. Fujimori may have wanted to show the Peruvian people that he
is willing to stand up to the United States—to prove that he has no fear
of the American government. Taking a tough stance against the “American
terrorist” may have been the gambit he decided on (a pretty safe one,
as it turns out, since the American government has done so little to help,
and seems so little concerned that one of its citizens is being illegally
held in conditions that human rights organizations have called harsh, inhumane,
and degrading).


It should be noted—even Lori’s own family openly admits this fact—that
most Peruvians think Lori is guilty; this is only to be expected since the
Peruvian press and the media in general is tightly controlled by the government
and intimidated into toeing the government line. The overwhelming evidence
of Lori’s innocence has never been seen or even hinted at in the Peruvian
press. Under these circumstances, Fujimori’s tough stance against “Lori
the American terrorist” is quite popular with the Peruvian people. It
would be surprising, given the situation in Peru, to find a Peruvian who did
not think Lori guilty and deserving of her harsh fate.


There are a few, though, including the former Prime Minister of Peru, Javier
Valle Riestra, who think Lori is innocent. In June 1998, Javier Valle Riestra
went so far as to opine publicly that Lori should be pardoned and deported
from Peru because of the gross lack of fairness and contempt for due process
of her “trial.” Fujimori refuses to entertain any such possibility.
Valle Riestra has since resigned his post at least in part in protest over
Fujimori’s dictatorial style and unwillingness to give up the presidency
despite having already served the constitutionally-allowed maximum of two
terms.


Since 1996, Rhoda and Mark Berenson have been fighting an uphill battle to
get their daughter freed. The obstacles that remain in their way are many,
not the least of which has been the first impression that both Americans and
Peruvians had of Lori. This impression was the result of a carefully orchestrated
media event, manipulated by the Peruvian government. Fujimori wanted to make
sure that the impression of Lori would be that of a maniacal, unrepentant
terrorist.


For two weeks after her arrest, Lori was held incommunicado in a small, dark,
rat-infested cell. Lori herself was never physically abused during that time
but the same cannot be said for Lori’s cellmate of 11 days. Lori shared
this cell that was barely large enough for one person with a Peruvian woman
who had been shot numerous times and was still bleeding from her wounds. She
had a colostomy bag that was overflowing with waste, as well as a catheter
that Lori, who has no medical training, had to try to re-insert every time
it fell out. The woman had obviously been tortured. The woman was never given
or even offered any medical treatment during the 11 days that Lori was with
her. Lori alone took care of this woman.


At the end of this ordeal, Berenson, who had not been allowed to shower or
change clothes during the whole two weeks, was told she was to be “presented”
to the press. She was told there would be no microphones (a lie), and that
she would have to shout if she expected to be heard. That is what she did—and
that is precisely why she looked and sounded, for all the world, like a wild-eyed,
screaming, maniacal criminal.


Outraged at the treatment of the wounded woman, Lori gave a statement that
was defiant (understandably, considering the circumstances), but did not begin
to approximate the “admission of guilt” the Peruvian government
claimed it to be. Her statement in full (translated from Spanish):


    • “I
      am to be condemned for my concern about the conditions of hunger and misery
      which exists in this country. Here nobody can deny that in Peru there is
      much injustice. There is an institutionalized violence that has killed the
      people’s finest sons and has condemned children to die of hunger. If
      it is a crime to worry about the subhuman conditions in which the majority
      of this population lives, then I will accept my punishment. But this is
      not a love of violence. This is not to be a criminal terrorist because in
      the MRTA there are no criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement.
      I love this nation. I love this nation and although this love is going to
      make—cost—me years in prison, I will never stop loving, and never
      will lose the hope and confidence that there will be a new day of justice.”



Fujimori has seen to it that Berenson’s statement has never been seen
in its proper and relevant context. (It was this evidence of Lori’s supposed
“lack of remorse” for crimes she did not commit and her refusal
to plead for mercy that convinced the tribunal “justice” to convict
her and impose upon her the maximum sentence of life without parole.)


Moreover, this was the original image of Lori that was presented in the American
press, as well. It is the image of Berenson that her parents have been laboring
to overcome. For the mainstream American press was willing to accept the Peruvian
government’s framing of the case and its framing (in both senses of the
word) of Lori. Mark and Rhoda have been fighting back, as best they can: an
article here, a mention on a news program there. But Fujimori has had the
advantage of an almost insurmountable head start and a more coordinated and
synchronized media push. When the Berensons try to interest the American media
in the true story of their daughter, they are met with reluctance unless Lori
can be interviewed. Fujimori refuses to allow this to happen. That is why
Rhoda and Mark Berenson are trying to bring their appeal for help directly
to all of the people who are concerned with justice and human rights.


 Years of imprisonment in a maximum security prison situated at more
than 12,000 feet above sea-level, have left Lori with arthritis, vision problems,
and circulatory problems that, despite Lori’s having recently been moved
to a prison situated at a less health–endangering height of 7,000 feet
above sea-level, refuse to go away. Lori’s hands are twisted and swollen
to twice their normal size as a result of her circulatory problems. She sleeps
in a cell with no running water and an open hole in the floor for a toilet.
At night, the temperatures routinely drop below freezing; with no heat in
her cell.


The United States Code 22 Section 1732 states quite clearly that the President
is obliged to do all within his power short of a declaration of war to secure
the release of an American citizen being unjustly detained by a foreign power.
Amnesty International, the UN, the Organization of American States are just
a few of the many international organizations who agree that Lori was deprived
of due process, and ought, at the very least, to be granted a fair trial,
if not released outright for humanitarian reasons. But so far—despite
the pleas of Lori’s parents and family, her many supporters, and nearly
half the members of the House of Representatives and well over half the members
of the Senate—President Clinton has done virtually nothing to secure
Lori’s release.


The Berenson family and all of Lori’s supporters hope that people of
conscience will help them get President Clinton to pressure Fujimori to release
Lori. The time to act is now, before the changes in government in both DC
and Lima occur. Four years of unjust imprisonment is four years too long.
     Z


Please write your representatives and ask them to free Lori. Contact:
www. freelori.org.