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Lori Berenson - A Gringa in Trouble

Peruvian GraffitiLori Berenson, a young American woman originally convicted of treason in 1996, has gained a lot of news coverage and support in the United States. She was implicated in the activities of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and planning an attack on the Peruvian Congress. On June 20, 2001 she was convicted a second time before a panel of civilian judges and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Nine months later in February 2002, the Peruvian Supreme Court upheld her conviction and her sentence.

Berenson, now 32, still has options, but not attractive ones. She has pressed her complaints to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. She has won the right to a hearing before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Another option is that she serve out her term in a U.S. jail, but that would require her to accept her guilt, which she says she won't. She could also stay in Peruvian prison until the end of her sentence or parole. Finally, President Alejandro Toledo could pardon her and allow her to go home. That prospect is not popular in Peru, but she has influencial support. U.S. President George W. Bush took up her cause when he came into office and also when he visited Peru in March 2002. You can bet that Bush, U.S. diplomats and congressmen will be raising her case in the middle of every meeting and negotiation till she gets free.

There is no doubt that her first trial before a "face-less" military tribunal was a travesty of justice. There are thousands of Peruvians who underwent the same ordeal. However, there is no doubt in my mind that she was actively flirted with MRTA's activities, though not in a leadership position as originally charged by the police. I will never forget after she was captured in November 1995. She did not sound like a journalist slumming in the Third World. Like most people convicted under Fujimori, she deserved the second trial.

Berenson's parents have lobbied hard in Washington and New York to get the US government and media to put pressure on Lima to release her. Many senators and representatives have signed on to her cause. Former President Bill Clinton joined the campaign in the last days of his term. Lori's lucky that her parents, Rhonda and Mark, are so committed to her and have worked tirelessly to win her release.

Listen to Berenson tell her own stories in three long DemocrayNow radio programs: Breaking the Sound Barrier - Exclusive Interview with Jailed activist Lori Berenson, From Her Prison Cell in Lima, Peru - Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Each segment is about 48 minutes long. You will need RealOne Player. This interview took place when Alejandro Toledo was coming to office so I suspect that it is flavored by the hope that he might pardon her. The questions were sent to Berenson in writing and she answered them on tape. The quality is not the best, but it's still understandable.

Meanwhile in Peru, there is little sympathy for her complaints about the Peruvian justice. The Instituto de Defensa Legal published a Special Issue of Ideéle, its magazine. Peruvian human rights organizations constantly badgered the Fujimori administration for its flawed human rights record and ruthless anti-terrorist tactics. None of them took up Berenson's case, even after the Fujimori government fell in October 2000.

Cameras!... Action!

The media event staged to show Berenson to the press in January 1996 influenced public perception of this case. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the DINCOTEA anti-terrorism police unit news conference was a facet of psychological warfare against the insurgents. The government was under pressure to show results in the fight against subversion. The anti-terrorist police set up these shows for media impact and political dividends. It also served to counteract charges that suspected terrorists were being tortured under interrogation.

The participants paraded before the cameras were two types:

From the way that Lori Berenson acted at the media event, she appeared to belong to the second group, giving an angry speech that lectured Peruvians on the plight of their country. If you closely follow her words, however, she avoided saying anything that might link her to MRTA or its activities. Her most questionable statement was that MRTA was not a criminal terrorist organization ("The MRTA are not criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement."). She said she was waiting for a day of justice. This statement was not spontaneous but well rehearsed. She must have been practicing it for hours in her cold cell. You have to admire her for standing up in that setting because she had moxy and courage.

Most Peruvians heard Berenson's tone and attitude, not her words. It sounded like a radical political diatribe. The image of her contorted face sticks in your mind. See this Financial Times story for an unflattering photo. In any case, she should not be judged in her trial for her tone and what she said on that occasion.

Much of Berenson's parents work has been to undo the impressions created by that media event. They said that fatigue and stress made her act uncharacteristically. They said that she had spent days with a women who had been shot and wounded in the police assault on the safehouse and was overwrought by the experience. See Media Channel's interview with parents and a version of the media event. You will need RealPlayer.

The best chronology of events after Berenson's arrest are on her website. The site has a good collection of news articles on her plight.

Other Issues with the Berenson Case

Berenson says that she was in Peru working as a journalist for two small publications, Third World Viewpoint (it has published five issues since 1993) and Modern Times (neither publications have sites on the Web). She had registered at the Peruvian Congress. That is an easy step, basically requiring just showing an accreditation letter on the letterhead of a magazine or newspaper. You only need that press pass if you want to cover congressional sessions or committee meetings. Most foreign journalists do not bother registering with Congress, but rather register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They also sign on with the Foreign Press Association of Peru . During her time in Peru, Berenson never wrote a single article. As someone who lived from writing, I find that bewildering. She could not be considered a working journalist.

Few press freedom organizations have championed Berenson's cause as an issue of freedom of expression. Freedom House, Committee to Protect Journalists, International Freedom of Expression Exchange, Reporters Without Frontiers have not. The Digital Freedom Network has. International human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have not taken up her case. The Council of Western Hemisphere Affairs has actively back her appeals.

Clueless Berenson says that she did not know that the people she was associating with were MRTA guerrillas. Berenson was not a political neophyte, but quite sophisticated. Since 1989, she had been active in El Salvador conflict on the side of the insurgents and support the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. She served as a personal assistant to an FMLF commander during peace negotiations, both in Washington and El Salvador in 1992. It surprises me that she could not understand what her Peruvian friends were into. She also showed that she did not understand popular feelings about political violence in Peru. The poor did not want revolution; they wanted security and steady employment after 15 years of political violence.

Renting Out Especially surprising is that a gringa who is traveling through South America on personal or parental savings would put her name on a rental contract for a large house in Lima suburbs. Supposedly, she and her companion planned to have guests, but the house's size was more like a boarding house. At that time, the contract would have required at least two-three months rent up front. Rent probably went for between $1200 and $2500. Since Berenson and her friends would not have had other kinds of character references or a job, a landlord might have required an even larger deposit. I reach these conclusions from the prevailing rental market at the time. I have not seen the contract, which should have come to light during the trial. In any case, participating in a contractual arrangement for that amount of money seems questionable, at best, and implies a level of trust with the other parties involved.

Roomates It might seem incriminating that Berenson has preferred to quarter with the MRTA prisoners after her arrest, trial and conviction. I have visited Peruvian prisons on many occasions. They are horrendous places. You cannot remain healthy and sane in that environment unless you have daily organized support, whether it be for food, medical care or emotional solace. Either MRTA or Sendero inmates can provide that kind of help. If I were going to spend time in a Peruvian jail, I know that I would ally myself with one of them. During her imprisonment, Berenson has been an outspoken advocate for inmate rights.

Other Links: Guilty Until Proven Useful ::: Washington Post interview ::: Convicted By An Image by Danny Schechter ::: Lori Berenson Papers An excellent reporting job ::: Reactions to The Nation story ::: CBS Interview of Lori ::: Mary McGory's Prisoner of Peru commentary (June 1, 2000) ::: Peruvian Prison: Tim Cavanaugh on the imprisonment of Lori Berenson (2/05/99) :::FAQ about Lori Berenson (Adobe Acrobat file) ::: The case of Lori Berenson ::: Coop Member's Sister Gets Life Sentence in Peru

Michael Radu article ::: Dennis Jett

Council of Hemispheric Affairs Peru Fights a Loser’s Battle in the Notorious Berenson Case from August 2002. COHA is one of the US NGO's that a firmly behind Lori's cause. Also see COHA's Toledo's Inauguration piece.