Peruvian tribunal to decide fate of imprisoned American

Atlanta Journal/ Constitution -- 1 April 2001

by Mike Williams

Lima, Peru --- She began her humanitarian work at age 14, appearing in a commercial for CARE, the Atlanta-based agency that helps poor people around the world.

By her late teens, she was living in war-torn Central America, working for peace and to end poverty.

But at 26, Lori Berenson was arrested in Peru for aiding a radical group suspected of terrorist plots, then sentenced to life in prison by a secretive military court run by a judge wearing a hood to protect his identity. After nearly five years in some of the harshest prisons in the hemisphere, Berenson won a new trial when Peru's top military court overturned her conviction last year.

Now she is on trial again, facing a civilian tribunal that will decide whether she is a well-meaning activist or a committed revolutionary willing to support violence to achieve social change.

''She's imprisoned only for her beliefs,'' said her mother, Rhoda Berenson, who with her husband, Mark, is anxiously watching their daughter's trial in a cramped prison courtroom in a dusty Lima suburb. ''Lori always had a concern for the underdog. She was always concerned that there were so many people too poor to eat.''

Berenson's case has created tension between the Peruvian and U.S. governments and prompting criticism from international human rights groups who say Peru's special military courts make a sham of justice. Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) was among 40 U.S. senators who called for her humanitarian release from prison last year.

Supporter of left-leaning causes

But many Peruvians believe she got what she deserved: a life sentence for helping the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, which after her conviction staged the bloody takeover of the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima in 1996.

''The case is complicated, but she was involved with people who did very bad things,'' said Reynaldo Sanchez, an unemployed Lima draftsman. ''What would happen if a Peruvian went to the United States and got involved with a group trying to overthrow the government?''

There seems no question that Lori Berenson, now 31, is an activist committed to left-leaning political causes.

Raised by two college professors who were involved in protests against the Vietnam War, she worked in a New York City soup kitchen in her early teens, when many other girls her age were more concerned with clothes, dates and the high school social pecking order.

She took part in a CARE commercial as a member of a choral group, reading a voice-over for an ad that sought help for the world's poor children, her parents recall.

''After she got arrested, we met with her and talked about how she got here,'' Rhoda Berenson said. ''She remembered that commercial and said the thought of starving children still haunts her.''

History of involvement

As an anthropology student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1980s, Berenson took two trips to El Salvador, which was then embroiled in a civil war. Back in Boston, she worked with a student group committed to Central America's poor.

In 1989, she dropped out of MIT and moved to Nicaragua, working with Salvadoran war refugees. By 1992, she was the private secretary of Leonel Gonzalez, then head of the political wing of the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front, El Salvador's rebel army. Gonzalez, now a member of El Salvador's Congress, has told reporters that Berenson did only political work for his group.

Berenson moved to Peru in 1994. Within a year, she was living with Peruvian activists in a Lima suburb. She was arrested in November 1995 after authorities said they uncovered a plot by the group to take over the Peruvian Congress.

At that time, Peru's government was run by Alberto Fujimori, the iron-fisted president who spearheaded an intense campaign against Peru's two main leftist groups, the MRTA and the Shining Path.

Fujimori instituted a special justice system for suspected terrorists, bypassing regular courts for secret trials before military tribunals. Judges were masked because of threats against their lives. Groups such as Amnesty International roundly criticized the courts for their lack of due process and other shortcomings.

Berenson was convicted of treason in January 1996 and sent to a prison high in the Peruvian Andes, where she was held in a tiny cell swept by cold mountain winds.

''For two years I wasn't able to kiss her,'' said her father Mark, who has made 44 trips in the last five years --- his wife has made 45 --- to visit his daughter in prison. ''The rule for visits was one hour a week in a dark room divided by a dark screen.''

The Berensons eventually quit their jobs to campaign relentlessly for their daughter's release, obtaining letters of support from dozens of members of the U.S. Congress. The Clinton administration pressed firmly for a resolution to the case, and the family says the new Bush administration has indicated its support.

Used as bargaining chip

Trips to Peru and legal expenses exhausted the couple's savings, but in the past two years they have been helped by donations from the public.

Their hopes rose a little last year, when a new trial was ordered, and again in November when Fujimori fled Peru to escape corruption charges. The Berensons believe Fujimori turned their daughter into a political puppet, holding her case as a bargaining chip to use with the U.S. government, which became critical of his human rights record in his final months in office.

With Peru holding new presidential elections April 8, the Berensons hope for a change in the justice system that could help their daughter and thousands of Peruvians imprisoned for political activity. But they are aware their daughter faces long odds, as polls show a majority of Peruvians believe she collaborated with terrorists.

''She wants to win over the hearts and minds of the Peruvian people,'' said Mark Berenson. ''They need to see her for the true person she is, and not this picture the prosecutors have painted.''

But Lori Berenson's unyielding commitment to her principles may be hurting her cause before an unsympathetic Peruvian public and her judges. She is widely remembered for a scene just after her conviction when she told television reporters: ''There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA. It is a revolutionary movement.''

Claims questioned by judges

In the drab courtroom where she is now on trial on the reduced charge of ''terrorist collaboration,'' she sat quietly last week but spoke firmly in fluent Spanish when questioned by one of the judges. The proceedings --- which may drag on for months --- have been broadcast live on Peruvian television.

Prosecutors have asked for a 20-year sentence. The three-judge panel has peppered Berenson with questions about her activities in Central America and seems dubious of her claims that she wasn't involved in rebel military planning.

In interviews and letters over the years, Berenson has denied knowing that her Lima housemates were rebels planning terrorist activities. But she also has remained adamant about her convictions. She turned down an offer by the Peruvian court to admit guilt or apologize, a move her parents support.

''It makes no sense to us to apologize or confess to something she didn't do,'' Rhoda Berenson said.

If Lori Berenson has gotten depressed or disillusioned during her five years in prison, she hasn't shown a hint of it to her parents.

"She's told us, 'I'm in prison and my body isn't free, but my mind is free,' " Mark Berenson said.

She wants to come home, they say, and hopes to win her new trial. But she is ready for more time in prison if it comes, and will continue standing firmly on her beliefs.

"In my life I have tried to be faithful to my principles and morals and to do what my conscience tells me," Berenson wrote in a letter to prison authorities last year.