Prisoner of Peru

Washington Post -- 1 June 2000

by Mary McGrory

Mark and Rhoda Berenson of Manhattan have been married for 38 years. They're both retired college professors--he from statistics at Baruch and she from physics at Nassau Community. Their whole lives are wrapped around Peruvian politics. Alberto Fujimori's one-man runoff election has outraged the world but the Berensons' attention is riveted on one person, their 30-year-old daughter, Lori, who is serving a life sentence in a military jail.

Last winter, Fujimori's rival, Alejandro Toledo, came to New York and made Lori Berenson a campaign issue. He promised that he would look into her case. She is in the fourth year of her sentence. Only a comedian would say she had due process in a Peruvian military court, where she was found guilty of "aggravated terrorism" by hooded judges. Toledo, who refused to participate in the election because of the absence of anti-fraud measures, said that he would "personally interview" the former MIT student who says she was set up by the Peruvian secret police.

Terrorism is in Peru what communism used to be in our politics. It is radioactive. Fujimori called Lori Berenson a "criminal" and charged Toledo with being "soft on terrorism." Toledo backed off, mumbling about having been misunderstood or misquoted.

The Berensons have no idea whether a Toledo victory would have meant the release of their daughter from her windowless cell in Arequipa. All they know is that Lori, a free-lance writer, was picked up on a bus in Lima by security agents, taken to a terrorist safe house and from there to a secret military court, where her lawyer could neither call nor cross-examine witnesses.

She was in a bad way at her trial. She had been in a cell for 39 days in the same clothes she was wearing when arrested. Her cellmate was a woman who was slowly bleeding to death from wounds suffered in the police raid on the terrorist safe house. Exhausted, terrified and furious, she took the stand and attacked the justice system in Peru. She raged, "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."

The videotape of the "gringa terrorist" is a staple of the Peruvian political diet.[PARA]"They've made her a monster," says Rhoda Berenson sadly.[PARA]Her cell has no running water, or electric light. She sleeps on a mattress on the floor and is allowed out for two hours a day. The U.S. Embassy visits "regularly," which the Berensons say means five times a year.

Rhoda and Mark Berenson gave up their jobs so they could spend time trying to help their daughter. They lobby Congress and the State Department, circulate petitions, and write letters. About every two weeks, they make the wearying 8,000-mile round trip to see her, bringing reading material--which must be in Spanish--and food and warm clothes--the climate is harsh. They can't kiss her or touch her hand. They visit through a double mesh wire. After their 15-hour journey, they get an hour each with her. Lori, who is apparently quite sociable, can speak to only two other prisoners, both Shining Path women with whom she does not communicate well, since she is opposed to all forms of violence.

Why hasn't the administration made more of a fuss about Lori Berenson? Clinton administration officials say they insist she should be given a fair trial. But quiet diplomacy has been the rule, apparently because Fujimori is a much-needed ally in the drug war. He flunked democracy last weekend, but he has reduced the coca crop by 50 percent.

Fujimori is emotionally involved in terrorism--his own family members were involved when the Japanese embassy in Lima was raided by terrorists in 1996. And he may have the prevailing Latin American loathing of Yankee activists, particularly women. Four American churchwomen were raped and killed by Salvadoran soldiers in 1980 for sympathizing with the poor.

Lori went to Peru to write stories about the wretchedness and injustice of Peruvian lives for two left-wing magazines. She spent several years in Nicaragua with the Jesuits and other church groups working with Salvadoran exiles.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who leads Lori's cause, visited her constituent in prison in 1997. "I liked her," she says. "She struck me as a very concerned young woman." Her "crime" may have been unwariness. Her interviews with Shining Path terrorists looked like plotting to paranoid Peruvian authorities.

Carolyn Maloney thinks the president should invoke a provision in the U.S. code that requires him to do everything "short of war" to rescue Americans wrongfully imprisoned abroad. She thinks the State Department should be "more supportive."

"It's time for that girl to come home to her parents," she says.