Kin of Woman Jailed in Peru Glum

Associated Press -- 1 September 2000

by Larry McShane


NEW YORK - The phone rang at 8 a.m, bringing apparent good news to Mark and Rhoda Berenson: Their daughter Lori, five years into a life sentence for terrorism, was granted a new trial this week by Peruvian authorities.

The Berensons knew better.

``It's a step forward,'' said Rhoda Berenson, sitting at home with her husband Mark three days after Monday's call from U.S. officials in Peru. ``But we don't know if the next step is toward a rise or if we're going to fall straight down.''

The granting of a new trial was seen by many supporters as vindication, but the family could only view it with skepticism.

They've tried for years without success to free the 30-year-old magazine reporter from a Peruvian jail cell where she's been held since a military judge convicted her in January 1996.

``So many people called us: `This is wonderful!''' Mark Berenson said, his voice belying any such excitement.

``People asked, `When do they select the jury?''' his wife added. ``There is no jury. I guess that's something we ought to point out.''

If convicted in the civilian trial, their daughter could still face 20 years to life in prison; a Peruvian prosecutor has already said she would get the minimum 20-year sentence.

Lori Berenson had arrived in Peru in 1994, a 24-year-old reporter for two liberal-leaning U.S. magazines, Third World Report and Modern Times.

Peruvian authorities describe her as a frustrated radical who was in search of a revolution. They charged that she used her press credentials as a ruse to interview members of Congress while her real motive was to provide a blueprint of the building to the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement for a foiled attack on the Congress.

Berenson's parents, both college professors, have worked ceaselessly since her arrest to demonstrate their daughter was an activist, not a terrorist.

Both quit their jobs to found and fund the Committee to Free Lori Berenson, and they visit their daughter in prison as often as they can afford to travel. Rhoda Berenson has just finished a book on the family's struggle and hopes to see her next weekend.

``For me, the hard part is the down time - when we have a break,'' she said. ``And I think, `What is Lori doing now? Is she OK? I haven't seen her in weeks.'''

Sitting in the living room of their Manhattan apartment Thursday, one day after an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Mark Berenson checks his watch; Lori is due at a different prison in Lima in 30 minutes.

On a coffee table sits her handmade Father's Day card from June 1999, written in Spanish so prison censors could read it. Nearby is a letter addressed to a local congresswoman. Leaflets, handouts and a cardboard sign calling for Lori's release adorn the room.

Mark Berenson had already scanned the day's Peruvian newspapers on the Internet, and what he had read further tempered any optimism about the new trial.

``From one of the major Peruvian newspapers, with O.J. Simpson-type headlines: `In three months, Lori Berenson is going to be sentenced,''' he translates from Spanish. The article doesn't mention any trial preceding the sentencing.

``No trial,'' he continues. ``They don't care. It's scary. There's no new trial, and there was no first trial.''