Local activists fight for prisoner

Mark Pawlak

Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories about Lori Berenson and activists’ efforts to free her from Peruvian prison.

A woman’s campaign for human rights has put her in prison with a life sentence and begun another group’s crusade for her release from being a political prisoner in Peru.

Lori Berenson, a U.S. citizen, human-rights activist and freelance journalist, is serving a life sentence in a Peruvian jail following her conviction of treason and aggravated terrorism by a military court in January 1996.

Ames resident Dick Kruse is fighting for Berenson’s release. He is the Midwest regional coordinator for the nationwide Committee to Free Lori Berenson.

“Numerous organizations, including Amnesty International and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, have stated that Lori has been arbitrarily contained,” he said.

Gail Taylor, national organizer for the Committee to Free Lori Berenson, believes it is important for students to be aware of Berenson’s situation.

“Students and young folks need to remember Lori all of the time, because at any moment, any of us could get arrested for speaking the truth,” she said. “Lori Berenson is not just Lori as an individual. She is a human-rights activist that got thrown into jail, and we should support her, keeping in mind that we are not immune to jail time when we go to other countries.”

A local benefit to free Berenson will be from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday at Boheme Bistro, 2900 West St.

According to the U.S. State Department, trials in Peruvian civilian courts for terrorism-related cases do not meet international standards of openness, fairness and due process.

The trial is described on the Committee to Free Lori Berenson’s Web site, www.freelori.org. Berenson is charged with terrorist collaboration, and her trial began with the prosecution taking testimony that was placed in a file. The file was submitted in March 2001 to a three-judge panel, which uses the file as the bulk of the evidence in the trial, according to the Web site. The panel, not a jury, then can call witnesses and render a verdict.

Berenson is being held in a cell during the trial, which, Kruse said, is an example of how she is presumed guilty and must prove her innocence.

“The Peruvian government and media have declared her guilty even before trial,” he said. “There’s no way she is going to get a fair trial.”

The judicial process works differently in Peru than in the United States, said Steffen Schmidt, university professor in political science.

“Peruvian courts are not quite as fair as American courts are, so there are some issues about how fair a trial she can get there,” Schmidt said. “There’s a better chance she will get a fairer trial now than when she was tried [in military court], because the new government in Peru is trying to get more American support and wants the United States to help them.”

The conditions Berenson has endured in prison have been inhumane, Kruse said.

For her first three years of confinement, she was held in Yanamayo Prison at an altitude of 12,700 feet without heat or hot water.

Berenson’s health deteriorated, causing circulatory problems, arthritis, chronic bronchial infections and digestive difficulties.

Kruse became involved in the fight for Berenson because he had worked in the area by Yanamayo Prison and knows about the conditions there.

Berenson was moved to Socabaya Prison, where she was totally isolated for four months until Amnesty International intervened. Other political prisoners were moved into her wing of the prison, but Berenson still spent 22 hours in solitude every day.

For the trial, she has been moved to a women’s prison in Chorrillos, Lima.

The mental toll Berenson has endured is enormous, Kruse said.

He said the psychological damage to her has been worse than the health problems because she has been isolated. Even when people were put around her, Berenson was afraid to talk to anyone because Peruvian officials had planted snitches around her, Kruse said.

Berenson arrived in Peru in November 1994 after spending several years in Central America working for human rights. Later, she obtained assignments from two U.S. magazines, Modern Times and Third World Viewpoint, to work as a freelance journalist. She obtained the necessary press credentials in Peru’s capital, Lima. At the time of her arrest, Berenson was researching the effects of poverty on women in Peru.

Kruse said Berenson is not the only one to have her rights violated in Peru.

“There are a number of people that have been charged with terrorism and have been held without due process,” Kruse said. “She is just one of many – her case is just a little more unusual.”