Last Best Chance
The Village Voice -- 4 May 2004
by Nicole Karsin
After almost nine years in the harsh prisons of Peru, Lori Berenson has a chance to win her liberty this week. The 34-year-old New Yorker's case will be heard in Costa Rica by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the highest such court for members of the Organization of American States. The court has a range of choices, from doing nothing to ordering Peru to set her free.
Berenson was originally sentenced to life in prison on terrorism charges, by a secret military court during the repressive regime of then president Alberto Fujimori. In November 1995, she was arrested as an alleged leader of an urban leftist guerrilla group called Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement and accused of helping to plan an attack against Peru's Congress. She says she was working as a journalist and had unknowingly sublet one floor of a house she'd once lived in to Tupac Amaru members.
In a second trial, her sentence was reduced to 20 years.
Last August, Berenson sat on the cement bed in her cell in the northern Peruvian province of Cajamarca and defended the nation's more than 2,000 political prisoners. "They call them all monsters, saying that they should suffer," she said. "They're forgetting the fact that most people have been in jail for at least 10 years, with torture and families destroyed, as if they haven't already gone through enough."
Berenson's original charge:
Treason Against the Fatherland, or 'traición contra la Patria'
Life, or 'una cadena perpetua'
Time in jail:
Eight years and five months in four different maximum-security prisons
- From 1996-1998, she was confined to the Yanamayo prison, on a frigid 12,000-foot plateau.
- Until 2000, she often received only a 30-minute break from her cell each day.
- In 1998, she spent four months in solitary confinement in the Socobayo prison.
- Raynaud's syndrome, a reaction to the cold and altitude that causes her hands and feet to become swollen and purple, the skin to get cut and infected
- Chronic strep throat
- Diminished eyesight because of darkness in her cell
- Gastrointestinal problems because of altitude and lack of fruit and vegetables
- In July 2002, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommended that Peru restore Berenson's rights, compensate her monetarily for damages, and overhaul the anti-terrorism laws that condemned her and thousands of Peruvians.
- When the Peruvian government failed to comply, the commission asked the Inter-American court to take the case.
In October 2003, Lori was married to Anibal Apari, a 40-year-old law student and former political prisoner also charged with being a Tupac Amaru member. He was released on parole in June 2003 after serving 12 years of a 15-year sentence. He and Berenson met in 1997 in Yanamayo prison.
Due to testify this week is Rhoda Berenson, Lori's mother:
"If someone had told me it was going to take eight-and-a-half years to get an international hearing I would have said I won't survive that long. We've being saying what the [human rights commission] finally said, which is that Lori was tried twice and neither trial met any kind of international standards, that Lori had been imprisoned under inhumane conditions a great part of the time, that Peru needs to change its laws and bring them in line with what everybody respects as obeying international standards."
Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo:
"The anti-terrorist laws that were alive during the government of Fujimori have been reviewed substantially by the constitutional tribunal and we have been asked to redo the trial and in effect, we had to do that. In the case of Lori Berenson, she was given a new trial under normal circumstances under the current judicial system, and she has been sentenced to a much lower penalty. . . . She has been retried under today's circumstances with due process and a democratic system with respect to human rights."
Former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, who will help represent her before the Inter-American court:
"The integrity of the Peruvian judicial system is at stake, as well as the question of freedom and justice for Lori Berenson."
Thomas Nooter, another Berenson lawyer:
"It is really Lori's last chance to get a judicial resolution for her case. There are no other courts to go to after this. I'm optimistic that the court will grant some kind of release to Lori. They could order her to be released or they could order a new trial, which is better than nothing."