Justice Denied in Peru - the Case of Lori Berenson and Her Sister Political Prisoners

Statement by religious leaders

March 2002

Recently, our delegation visited Lori Berenson, the centerpiece in the now infamous case of an American incarcerated in a dungeon-like Peruvian prison located astride the unforgiving Andean terrain of that country. We were a group of religious leaders representing U.S. parishes and congregations concerned about the egregious injustice being done to Ms. Berenson, going back to the star chamber military tribunal she had to face in 1996, as well as her indisputably flawed trial before a civilian court last year. We were also deeply troubled over the lack of reasonable progress by Peru's new reform government in correcting the legal abuses under which thousands of men and women were given lengthy sentences dating back to the corrupt regime of Peru's now disgraced ex-President Alberto Fujimori. Most of them, including Ms. Berenson, are still victims in a Kafkaesque fate without remission.

In the course of our trip to Peru our delegation presented to the country's foreign ministry letters from over 300 religious leaders, addressed to President Alejandro Toledo, calling for the release of Ms. Berenson on humanitarian grounds. The signatories included the Cardinal Archbishop of Wellington, New Zealand, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., prominent rabbis, priests, pastors and laypersons from throughout the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere.

Our statement said, in part: "It is a matter of spiritual concern to us that Ms Berenson was unjustly imprisoned for nearly three years in Yanamayo [a particularly harshly situated prison], under a life sentence, which was later rescinded because the charges of treason were unfounded and the circumstances betrayed the religious and humanistic traditions of your great nation."

Weeks before our visit, Ms. Berenson was moved from her Lima prison to another in the city of Cajamarca after security officers in gas masks, without any forewarning, and wielding clubs as they burst into her cellblock at 3 a.m., discharged tear gas and began to terrorize the sleeping female prisoners housed in the area. They did this under the pretext that they were subduing a potential riot. All the women were beaten, manhandled, and sexually abused. In the presence of the remaining 16 other women prisoners, Ms. Berenson and Nancy Gilvonio, widow of a guerrilla leader, were then roughly pushed into waiting vehicles, still in their nightclothes and without shoes, to be transported to two different prisons, hundreds of miles from the nation's capital.

When our delegation met with the Justice Minister, he informed us that this type of prison transfer "was normal precautionary procedure." Inadvertently, he may have been exposing the hellish reality underlying Peru's Paleolithic and inhumane criminal justice system that has few admirers anywhere in the world, let alone among fellow Peruvians.

In protesting the kind of routinely repressive treatment apparently found throughout Peru's draconic prison system, that is being accorded to Lori Berenson, Nancy Gilvonio (whom we also visited), and to the other incarcerated political prisoners, our delegation expressed dismay to the country's Foreign Minister as well as to the U.S. Ambassador, over the failure of the recently inaugurated Toledo administration to bring about the reforms stressing basic human rights and social justice that the president had so heavily emphasized during his electoral campaign to return the country to democratic rule.

Our delegation was convinced that Lori Berenson and Peru's other political prisoners have been denied the application of fundamental and internationally recognized human rights standards and even basic legal protection. We urge an immediate suspension of Peru's unjust "anti-terrorism" laws that have been condemned internationally, as well as a one-by-one review of the case files for all of those imprisoned under such stipulations. Countless innocent detainees and their families have suffered long enough because of these provisions.

From her cell, Lori Berenson calls for international attention to the human rights of a vast invisible population of Peruvians suffering from poverty and injustice. As a group, we were energized by Ms. Berenson's hortative mission. One member of our delegation observed: "One thinks of a jail as a very dismal place, a very dark place, but she was there as a source of light among the other prisoners." Lori Berenson identifies with their struggle, just as in the past she had identified with the struggle of the poor and oppressed. She helps the other prisoners to see their own worth. She helps them in understanding that they need not mutely submit to the violation of their fundamental rights. Those who are imprisoned with her are being inspired with a newfound determination to stand up for their rights and dignity.

Although Peru's Supreme Court recently denied Lori Berenson's appeal and confirmed her sentence, she continues to maintain that she is innocent and we support her disavowal of terrorist violence both as a means of social change and to be used as institutionalized repression, as in Peru's penal system. We respectfully urge President Toledo to exercise executive clemency on behalf of Ms. Berenson and we ask the Bush administration to make every effort to secure her release after more than six years of debilitating incarceration. We ask the good people of both Peru and the U.S. to recognize the highly questionable conditions under which she was judged and to give support to efforts to obtain her freedom.

Rabbi Balfour Brickner, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, New York
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Archdiocese of Detroit
Ms. Shirley Magidson, Peacemakers Order - Zen Center, Los Angeles
Rev. Dr. William Nottingham, Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis
Rabbi Joshua Saltzman, American World Jewish Services, New York

March, 2002