Pressure Peru to set American citizen free

The Palm Beach Post (Editorial) -- 30 November 1999

by Bill Bonvie

Bill Bonvie is a New Jersey-based freelance writer.

The very idea that Spain -- ruled until a few years ago by the only genuine fascist to remain in power after the defeat of the Axis -- could teach the United States a thing or two about dealing with human rights abusers is one that many Americans might find hard to swallow.

Yet here we see the former realm of Francisco Franco demanding the extradition of Chile's aging former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, from Britain and issuing international arrest warrants for about 98 of neighboring Argentina's ex-military rulers for a variety of crimes committed during those countries' "dirty little wars" against political dissent. Such actions, initially taken on behalf of Spanish victims of Pinochet's rule, were later expanded to include many others as well.

By contrast, the U.S. has not only steered clear of these efforts, but appears to have officially abandoned one of its own citizens to a living death as a political prisoner of another such tyrannical Latin American regime.

As of today, free-lance journalist and human rights activist Lori Berenson will have spent four of her 30 years locked up by the government of Peru, having been condemned by a hooded tribunal -- without any semblance of due process -- to life without parole under the most hellish conditions imaginable.

While the crime with which she was charged -- treason -- required a legalistic leap of logic to apply to a U.S. citizen who was in that country on assignment for two New York-based publications, it was one which enabled Peruvian authorities to bring their trumped-up case against her before a military, rather than civilian court.

Denied any real opportunity to either dispute the accusations or appeal her conviction, she continues to languish in solitary confinement in a cold, barren cell for 22 hours a day, her health steadily deteriorating, despite her persistent denials of involvement with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and the fact that original allegations against her -- for instance, that she had rented a "safe house" for its members and was maintaining a secret fund for them -- were later revealed to be fabrications.

In fact, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori has gone so far as to sever his country from the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights following that court's unanimous vote to invalidate the same type of secret military trial for four Chileans who were similarly charged, convicted and sentenced in 1994.

The motivation for such Draconian actions is not difficult to fathom. By making examples of individuals who actively promote social reform, a leader such as Mr. Fujimori can both discourage further meddling from other countries (the U.S. in particular) and reinforce his reputation for being tough on terrorists and their supposed supporters.

Parallels to another harrowing case

What's particularly disturbing, however, is the likelihood that some U.S. officials may tacitly go along with the silencing of Americans who attempt to help the poor and oppressed, and who might have acquired a little too much knowledge in the process.

Such was the case with Charles Horman, another young American freelance journalist who went to Chile in the early 1970s to observe reforms taking place under the administration of democratically elected Socialist Salvador Allende. Mr. Horman's disappearance during the violent military coup led by Pinochet later became the subject of the movie Missing , which portrayed Mr. Horman's father's frustrating encounters with uncooperative State Department personnel and subsequent discovery that he had stumbled on evidence of American complicity in Mr. Allende's overthrow.

Mr. Horman eventually was found to have been among those who were rounded up and executed in a stadium -- an act in which "U.S. intelligence may have played an unfortunate part," according to a recently declassified 1976 State Department memo. The government of Chile, the memo also revealed, "might have believed that this American could be killed without negative fallout" from the U.S. government.

While Ms. Berenson may not have been privy to such sensitive information, she has witnessed first-hand the kinds of atrocities that have long sullied U.S. involvement in Latin American affairs -- particularly the bombing of villagers in El Salvador by security forces flying American-made attack helicopters.

Perhaps that's one reason why U.S. officials haven't been more aggressive in pressing for her release, despite letters sent to Secretary of State Madeline Albright two years ago by 235 members of Congress urging intervention, a petition to the Peruvian government by former President Carter, a declaration by Amnesty International that she is in fact a political prisoner, and another by the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights.

But as 176 members of the House of Representatives pointed out in a letter to Clinton in June, federal law requires the president to take all necessary steps, short of going to war, to secure the release of an incarcerated American citizen "if it appears to be wrongful." The letter further noted that lack of effective action in the Berenson case poses a danger to U.S. citizens "not only in Peru, but in many other countries" as well as jeopardizing the status of the U.N. High Commission and "the cause of justice and human rights throughout the world."

If you think that's an exaggeration, consider the chilling effect that an ordeal such as Ms. Berenson's -- and the prospect of being forsaken by their own government -- would tend to have on other Americans of conscience who may be inclined to expose human rights violations in countries with whom we have dealings.

That's why it's time for the American people themselves to start turning up the heat and demanding Ms. Berenson's release -- which is the aim of a planned White House call-in campaign on the fourth anniversary of her incarceration (with details available on the Web at Nor should pressure stop there -- not until we see solid evidence that U.S. officials are doing some serious arm-twisting in this case, whether it involves cutting off all but humanitarian aid to Peru or any other form of not-so-friendly persuasion.

Or must we rely on Spain to do it for us?