Peru prisoner has some U.S. support

Mark Pawlak

Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories about Lori Berenson and activists’ efforts to free her from Peruvian prison. Friday’s story will tell about local efforts in the campaign.

Five years of imprisonment.

This is the story of a 31-year-old woman whose campaign for human rights has turned into another group’s crusade for her release after she became a political prisoner in Peru.

Local activists are taking part in the campaign to free Lori Berenson, a U.S. citizen, human rights activist and freelance journalist, who is serving a life sentence in a Peruvian jail for her conviction of treason and aggravated terrorism by a military court in January 1996.

In August 2000, the Peruvian Supreme Council of Military Justice overturned the military court’s decision and reversed her life sentence. However, Berenson was not released and now is being tried for the same charges in a civil court.

Berenson is allowed only one hour per week with her lawyer, and the tone of the trial is that she is assumed guilty and must prove her innocence, according to the Committee to Free Lori Berenson Web site,

The Peruvian government has alleged that Berenson was a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, known as the MRTA.

MRTA actions in Peru are responsible for holding 72 hostages for 126 days at the residence of the Japanese ambassador in Lima. The movement members have been responsible for numerous assassinations, bombings and kidnappings and have been involved in drug trafficking. The MRTA also has fought against the last three democratically elected governments in an attempt to impose their beliefs by force.

The MRTA “considers themselves revolutionaries that are trying to take over the country to make it better for the common man,” said Steffen Schmidt, university professor of political science. “The United States and the government of Peru consider [the MRTA] basically terrorists and Communists.”

The government believes Berenson was involved in the preparations for an attack on the Peruvian Congress. The MRTA was intending to kidnap members of the Congress and exchange the hostages for imprisoned members of the organization.

“Lori Berenson was accused of having gotten them a lot of information as an American citizen,” Schmidt said. “She wasn’t as suspicious, so the government accused her of getting secret information and supporting the MRTA.”

The Peruvian government has other evidence they believe proves Berenson’s guilt.

While living with others in a large house that was determined to be a MRTA safe house, she was arrested with the wife of the MRTA leader on a bus in November 1995. There were copies of MRTA publications with her handwritten notes in the margin.

Berenson has previously stated that the evidence against her is not truthful. She has contended that she didn’t know any of her acquaintances were MRTA members before her imprisonment.

“Lori has never admitted to being a member of the MRTA,” said Dick Kruse, the Midwest regional coordinator for the nationwide Committee to Free Lori Berenson.

Numerous MRTA members also have testified that Berenson was not a member of their organization.

She maintains that she is imprisoned only for her beliefs.

“I have never participated in the planning of a violent act, neither with the MRTA nor anybody else,” Berenson has previously said, according to the committee Web site. “Neither have I ever promoted violence and, what is more, I do not believe in violence and it would not be possible for me to participate in violence.”

Peruvians are not very sympathetic to someone in Berenson’s situation because of the turmoil in their country, Schmidt said. They have been fighting drug dealers and two guerilla groups, the Shining Path and the MRTA.

The U.S. Ambassador to Peru has stated that Berenson’s nationality has worked against her, and Peruvian authorities have treated her unusually harshly because she is a U.S. citizen, according to the Web site.

Kruse said that shortly before Berenson was arrested, the United States was involved in a border dispute between Peru and Ecuador. The United States was planning an airplane sale to Ecuador, and the Peruvian government asked the United States to halt the sale. When the United States denied Peru’s request, the Peruvian government was very upset.

Political relations between Peru and the United States have been shaky, but are getting better, Schmidt said.

Peru is “trying to move to more democratic elections, so the relations are improving,” he said. “They were not so good for the last six years or so, because the president of Peru was very authoritarian.”

Peru and the United States have strong business relations, and Peru receives a considerable amount of aid each year from the U.S. government, including money to fight the war on drugs. However, leaders of the committee dedicated to Berenson’s release contend that the government needs to step in and help.

“Why isn’t the U.S. government doing more to get her released?” Kruse asked.

He said business relations between the two countries may be to blame for the government’s failure to secure Berenson’s release.

“For the U.S. government to intervene would cause businesses in the United States to be hurt,” Kruse said.

According to U.S. Code 22, Section 1732, it is the president’s obligation to do all in his power, short of going to war, to secure the release of a U.S. citizen wrongfully imprisoned abroad.

The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate sent a letter to then-President Clinton asking that he secure Berenson’s release. A majority of the House signed the letter in addition to 43 percent of the Senate.

“The United States has wanted for her to at least get a fair trial, . but the United States has not confronted the government in Peru in a major way about this,” Schmidt said. “I think the American government thinks maybe she was involved in helping the terrorist organization.”