Behind Peruvian bars, but still unbowed

Washington Post -- 4 November 2000

by Anthony Faiola

LIMA, Peru - The maximum security block at the Chorrillos Women's Prison is a masterpiece of penal intimidation. Armed guards line the halls of overcrowded cells, and sharp wire spirals sit atop the walls. After lockdown, the screams of disturbed women echo over the whispers of government snitches. So when a Peruvian colonel suggested to its most famous inmate, Lori Berenson, that she show a visitor the beautiful Christmas cards she has been making, she sensed a trap.

Berenson is a recent transfer to Chorrillos, a relative Hilton compared with some of the hellholes where the 30-year-old former New Yorker has done time since her arrest on terrorism charges five years ago this month. But at her request, she has been moved to the harsher high-security block for members of Peru's Tupac Amaru (MRTA) rebel insurgency, where she and the other prisoners have been making cards.

"Oh yes, the colonel would like me [to give you those cards] so they can later say, 'Look, she's with the MRTA!' " she told a visiting reporter. "I live with people from the MRTA, I'm accused of being with the MRTA, but that does not mean that I am from the MRTA. But the people who are with the MRTA here make cards, very pretty cards."

During the course of a more than two-hour interview with The Washington Post here on Thursday afternoon--her first with a newspaper since her arrest--Berenson was unbowed. She insisted that she is innocent of the charges that brought her a life sentence from hooded military judges presiding over a secret court, but would not repudiate the rebels who in prison are her chief companions.

Berenson's celebrated case now faces its most sensitive period since her arrest. In a move widely seen as an attempt by embattled President Alberto Fujimori to strengthen strained ties with Washington, a military court threw out Berenson's sentence in August and ordered a new, civilian trial. The decision cheered her supporters in the United States and elsewhere who have fought for her release, and was praised by officials who have condemned Peru for depriving her of due process.

But two scandals in September rocked Fujimori, who is viewed as largely controlling the justice system, forcing him to call early elections in which he now promises he will not run. With him on the way out and perhaps no longer as concerned about improving relations with the United States, the politics that seemed her best shot at freedom have been thrown into doubt.

So she does not have high hopes. "I cannot imagine that I can get a fair trial here," she said. "I am innocent of all the charges against me, earlier and current."

During the interview, Berenson alternately displayed rage and bitterness, good-natured humor and a love of intellectual banter. Her face seemed more drawn than in photos before her capture. She wore thick eyeglasses because her vision has eroded after years in tiny, dark cells. She wrung her hands constantly, perhaps trying to hide the swollen red blotches she acquired through exposure during two years in Yanamayo, a freezing Andean prison with thin air and no heating.

She showed no signs, however, that prison had eroded her self-assurance. Seated for the interview between two prison guards in a high-backed chair in a warden's office, she was positioned under a slogan of the national police, "God, Fatherland, Law." When a guard quietly suggested to a journalist that Berenson be photographed with the logo, she quickly retorted, "No!" and frowned at them with disdain.

She feels a lot of disdain these days, but even more distrust. The government, she said, is only allowing her to see her local attorney a half-hour a week. Since August, when her life sentence was annulled, she said authorities have been trying to implicate her on lesser charges, which she also called unfounded. The only people she described as trusting were her parents and her friends in the MRTA block.

She said she asked to be placed in the MRTA block to escape "repentants" or "snitches"--supposed rebels who have confessed their alleged crimes. "Repentants are people who for one reason or another have collaborated with the government, and so on the basis of their cooperation, they are allowed certain facilities that other prisoners are not allowed to have," she said. "I don't have access because I haven't collaborated with the government. That's the idea."

Arrested and Jailed

Berenson was arrested on a Lima bus on Nov. 30, 1995. That evening, a 10-hour shootout ensued between police and MRTA rebels at the house in which Berenson and a group of rebels had lived in the fashionable suburb of La Molina. Soon afterward, the police discovered a sketch of the layout of the Peruvian Congress which they claim was in Berenson's handwriting. The police contended the sketch was an indication that the MRTA was about to seize the building.

Berenson, who was accredited as a freelance journalist in Peru, has insisted--and asserted during the interview--that she did not know that her housemates were rebels engaged in trying to overthrow the Peruvian government. Founded in the early 1980s, the Cuban-inspired MRTA was the smaller and by many standards less ruthless of two violent leftist insurgencies that emerged during the decade in Peru. Both it and the larger Shining Path movement were essentially wiped out by Fujimori.

Along with thousands of Peruvians arrested during ruthless counterinsurgency campaigns in the 1980s and early 1990s, Berenson was tried in a special anti-terrorism court, presided over by "faceless judges," in which defendants were not permitted to examine or rebut the evidence against them. Although she is an American citizen, she was sentenced to life in prison for treason.

In an international campaign led by her parents, New York professors, Berenson has been portrayed as a naive do-gooder wrongly accused and unfairly judged. Her case has brought figures such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark rallying to her defense. President Clinton has raised her case with Fujimori, and 176 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter in June calling for her release.

During the interview, Berenson portrayed herself as an activist committed since childhood to the cause of the poor. In the eighth grade, she recalled, she appeared in a commercial for the aid group CARE. In 1988 she went to El Salvador on a Christian project, where she worked with the poor. After studying anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she returned to Central America, and by 1994 she was back in El Salvador. There, she said, she did human rights work for the Marxist rebel alliance that had fought a 10-year war against the U.S.-backed government.

That work took place not during hostilities but mostly during the process of negotiating a peace settlement, she said. But, she added, "this is something I would prefer not to talk about because they are going to use this against me."

Arrival in Peru

Berenson came to Peru in 1994. She said she was working as a freelance journalist, although she had yet to publish a story when she was arrested. "My interest was more of an intellectual pursuit," she said.

Berenson refused to talk about details of how she came to live in the La Molina house. However, she rejected an account by Pacifico Castrillon, a Panamanian "repentant" MRTA member still serving time in jail, that he and Berenson rented the house posing as lovers. According to a case summary prepared by the police and later leaked, Castrillon told interrogators that Berenson served meals to militants living on the third floor of the house in La Molina while wearing a hood, a standard practice among the guerrillas who wanted their identities to remain secret even to their comrades. Castrillon also allegedly said he introduced Berenson to Nestor Cerpa, MRTA's second-in-command.

Cerpa was killed by government troops after the MRTA's spectacular seizure of the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima in December 1996. One of Cerpa's demands was Berenson's release. Asked why Cerpa would demand her release if she were not part of the MRTA, Berenson said, "I can't explain why it was true, if it was true" that Cerpa made the demand.

Berenson said that Castrillon's testimony was either falsified by police or he was lying. She acknowledged that she met Miguel Rincon Rincon, another MRTA leader, and had hired Nancy Gilvonio, Cerpa's wife, as a photographer and took her to interviews with congressmen and other officials. Gilvonio and Rincon, Berenson said, never told her who they really were.

Berenson said that when she was arrested on the Lima bus she first thought she was being kidnapped. She learned the truth when police took her to the La Molina house, where a gun battle had broken out. The discovery that the house contained 15 MRTA members, grenades and 8,000 rounds of ammunition came as a surprise, she said.

"My relationship with the other people accused was a social relationship, talking about things. Until I was in jail I finally figured out more or less what they are, which is much different than what I thought originally but it is not . . . my relationship with them was always on social terms."

As she talked about her relations with guerrilla group members, she stopped frequently in mid-sentence, seeming to reconsider what she was saying, then started off again. "You can always talk about common things . . . at this point you can talk about things in the jail or what's in the news. I happened to be in agreement with some of the . . . the fact that [MRTA members oppose] the laws . . . I am in agreement with that."

'A Summary Trial'

Berenson said that she was not physically mistreated by police after her capture, or during her interrogation. But she recalled her trial as an unreal experience.

"Basically it was a summary trial," she said. "The 22 or 24 co-defendants were lined up in chairs handcuffed with army personnel with ski masks. You could only see the eyes and the mouth, with AK-47s pointed in many cases at the heads of the accused. There were several more guards, also from the army. Then there were the judges, who were also hooded. They came in and read a piece of paper."

What most Peruvians remember of that time was Berenson's wild speech to the press before her life sentence. Her mouth twisted with rage, she condemned injustice in Peru and said, "In the Tupac Amaru Movement there are no delinquent terrorists--it is a revolutionary movement." For many viewers, exhausted by more than a decade of war that claimed more than 30,000 lives, the statement seemed an admission of guilt, one that many still view as a valid confession.

"I truly hope that they do not release her because it would be dangerous for Peru and any other country," said Congresswoman Martha Chavez, head of the armed forces and intelligence committee of the Peruvian Congress. "If people in the United States want her free, and returned home, hopefully she will not commit terrorism there. If she does, it would sadden me, but then the Americans would understand what terrorism is."

But Berenson was unrepentant about her speech. Rather than take back her words, she said she would have preferred to have said more.

"That is freedom of speech," she said. "There is nothing illegal about that. In fact, I think I should have said more. Had I known I would have had more time, I would have said more . . . I would have talked about the conditions of life, lack of freedom of speech. The whole judicial system, what was going on in the [police] in general and in my case."

She has been held in various prisons, though her case became noted in human rights circles when she was sent to Yanamayo prison, a harsh facility even by Peruvian standards located on a freezing, treeless plain high in the southern Andes.

"The first two years in Yanamayo it was 23.5 hours a day in a very small cell, with and without company," she said. "Sometimes I was with another person, sometimes not, but it was the same thing. There were 30 minutes of yard time and nothing else. After the first two years the laws changed, and we got one hour of yard time and 23 hours a day in the cell. The laws changed again in 1999, with two hours of yard time and the rest of the day in the cell. In that condition I was brought here two months ago from Socabaya," a prison near the city of Arequipa.

Although she suffered from throat ailments and swollen hands, she denied reports in the local and foreign press that she was hospitalized for treatment, or that her health condition was any worse than that of other prisoners.

"No, that's not true," she said. "My health is about the same as all prisoners. In the Andes and here I've seen health problems, and psychological problems are really prevalent."

Lingering Disagreement

Asked if she felt that she had been used as cover by MRTA rebels, Berenson said that by hiding their identities they were perhaps trying to protect her. And, if anything, her time in prison has deepened her disagreement with the government about whether they are "terrorists."

"Not betrayed, I don't think betrayed," said the woman who spends most of her days reading Latin American literature and who, if she gets out, said she may like to stay in Latin America. "I think there were things I was not told, but probably not to damage me. I presume, probably their idea was not to get me in trouble, so not tell me anything.

"Over the years that I've had more contact with them, I don't think that they can be called terrorists in terms of definition. Like I said, before I was detained, I didn't know much about them, but even knowing about them I don't think the word 'terrorist' would be the right definition."

The following letter has been submitted to the Washington Post for publication. We do not yet know if it will be published.

November 5, 2000

To the Editor:

We are happy that The Washington Post was able to interview our daughter Lori ( Behind Peruvian Bars, but Still Unbowed, November 4, page A1). For nearly five years the Peruvian government did not give her the opportunity to speak, violating Articles 12 and 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Anthony Faiola is an outstanding journalist his articles the past few years on Peru have clearly given readers a sense of what has been taking place in this troubled country.

We wish to correct or clarify four points. Firstly, Lori's support-base has been increasing each year. A majority (57%) of the House of Representatives in this 106th Congress support Lori's release -- 250 members, not 176. Many human rights groups and religious organizations support her release and recent resolutions to that end were unanimously passed by the Councils of the cities of New York and Los Angeles. It is widely recognized that a fair trial for Lori is impossible she has been demonized by Peru's media, vilified by government officials, and most of the judges have been appointed by disgraced spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos. After five years of wrongful imprisonment she should be released.

Secondly, Lori never requested to be moved to the MRTA prison wing. After spending three weeks in isolation in a noisy section of the prison following her return to Lima, all Lori requested was a different cell. The prison authorities themselves made the decision to move Lori to the MRTA wing.

Thirdly, for several months prior to her arrest, Lori was living in an apartment across town, in the district of San Borja, not in the La Molina house.

Fourthly, Lori looks at women with whom she has been imprisoned and with whom she has suffered as people, as sisters, as human beings abused. She does not look at them as terrorists.

Rhoda and Mark Berenson
New York City