The Berenson Verdict
The Nation -- 16 July 2001
Last August, amid the final throes of President Alberto Fujimori's scandal-ridden administration in Peru, he bowed to US pressure and announced that Lori Berenson's conviction by a secret military court would be voided and that she would be granted a new civilian trial. Thanks to nearly six years of poisonous publicity, Berenson, who in January 1996 was sentenced to life in prison for "treason against the fatherland," was widely viewed by Peruvians as a gringa terrorista who had come to Peru to join the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), an unpopular guerrilla organization. So when her new trial finally opened this past March, Berenson's supporters held out little hope that it would yield a just verdict.
As expected, on June 20 the panel of three judges handed down a conviction on the reduced charge of collaboration with terrorism. Sentencing Berenson to the maximum of twenty years in prison, the court declared that she was not an active member of the MRTA but neither was she a "mere spectator" in the house she shared in Lima with fifteen MRTA militants. Because of the more than five years she has already served, she is scheduled to be released in 2015.
As Peru's fragile democracy grapples with the legacy of Fujimori's war on guerrilla movements--carried out by notorious spymaster and former CIA collaborator Vladimiro Montesinos, recently captured in Venezuela after an eight-month international manhunt--Berenson's trial was an opportunity to show how far the country has come since the days of hooded military judges, doctored evidence, coercion of witnesses and trumped-up terrorism charges. Sadly, the answer turned out to be, Not far enough. In many respects Berenson's new trial was a vast improvement over the last--she was able to confront her accusers, her lawyers cross-examined witnesses and the proceedings were open to the public. But Peru's judicial system has yet to resolve the thorny issue of how civilian courts should deal with evidence that may have been tainted or even fabricated by Fujimori's ruthless antiterrorism police force. While hundreds remain in prison on the basis of no evidence at all, thousands more, like Berenson, are serving lengthy sentences as a result of circumstantial evidence and untrustworthy investigations [see Jonathan Levi and Liz Mineo, "The Lori Berenson Papers," September 4/11, 2000]. Peruvian courts must devise an approach to those cases that respects international standards of fairness and due process. In the absence of that, Berenson's pending appeal to the Peruvian Supreme Court is unlikely to succeed, although the court might decide to reduce her sentence.
Incoming President Alejandro Toledo, who could pardon Berenson when he takes office on July 28, disappointed her supporters when he said on a late June visit to the United States that he would not interfere with the court's decision. Toledo pointed out the need to respect the independence of the courts, but surely there is a difference between a president meddling with the judiciary to enhance his own power, as Fujimori did, and using executive authority to pardon someone denied a fair trial.
Granting clemency to Berenson and others like her is no long-term solution, however. Peru still needs far-reaching judicial reforms, beginning with the repeal of the draconian antiterrorism laws enacted in 1992. That would be an important step forward in the long process of exorcising the ghosts of Fujimori and Montesinos, and restoring the faith in government shattered by their corrupt rule.