Still Working to Free a New Yorker in Peru

The New York Times -- 8 May 2005

by Joseph P. Fried

Rhoda Berenson was speaking by phone from her Manhattan apartment recently, just hours after returning from her latest bittersweet trip to Peru.

Most of the four-and-a-half-day journey had been spent in transit, but she had two days with her daughter Lori, above, in one of the several coveted visits that Mrs. Berenson and her husband, Mark, alternately have with Lori each year.

But as with all the visits, it ended with Mrs. Berenson wishing vainly that Lori could leave with her from the place where they had all too briefly been together.

Lori Berenson is the former New York resident who is halfway through a 20-year prison sentence in Peru after being convicted of collaborating with Marxist revolutionaries in a foiled plot to take the Peruvian Congress hostage in 1995.

That conviction was her second in the case. Originally, she had been found guilty of treason and sentenced to life in prison by a military judge who was concealed behind a partition in a trial that was closed to the public and in which her lawyers were not allowed to cross-examine witnesses. But a vigorous campaign led by her parents, and pressure from the United States government, resulted in a retrial in a civilian court, which ended in the collaboration verdict and the 20-year term.

In December, the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Latin America's top human rights court, rejected arguments that Ms. Berenson, 35, should be freed or given a new trial because her second trial also violated her rights. She says that she did not collaborate in terrorist activities. Some legal experts said the Inter-American Court had been her last hope for gaining release before the scheduled expiration of her sentence in 2015.

But her parents, in remarks after Mrs. Berenson's recent trip to Peru, said that, like their daughter, they had not given up on the possibility of an earlier release.

"Things change in Peru," said Rhoda Berenson, a high school physics teacher. "They have been giving parole to other political prisoners." Mark Berenson, a professor at the Montclair State University School of Business in New Jersey, said he was considering taking the case to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. He called the Inter-American Court's decision "devastating."

Mr. Berenson said that conditions in Lori's current prison, in Cajamarca in northern Peru, were much better than those in her first prison, which was high up in the Andes and had no glass in the windows to block the frigid mountain winds.

Mrs. Berenson said that no matter how much longer her daughter remained in prison, "she's hoping to have a productive life."