Lori Berenson Congressional Hearing
by Dr. William J. Nottingham, Christian Theological Seminary
June 30, 1999This statement was presented at the 30 June 1999 Congressional Briefing.
As we have heard, for three-and-a-half years, Lori Berenson has been in prison in the Andean mountains of Peru. I visited her on May 26 as part of a religious delegation which included Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein and Sister Eileen Storey. I regret that Rabbi Bronstein is out of the country today, but I am glad that Dr. Storey is here. Our purpose was to bring spiritual support and encouragement to Miss Berenson, as well as to express love and solidarity for her and her family. We were privileged to have fifteen interviews with Peruvian religious leaders - Catholic, Protestant and Jewish - and human rights officers, as well as members of the US embassy staff. We learned from everyone the injustice of her trial and the incommensurate sentence of life imprisonment, along with various recommendations for her and the Berenson family. These interviews convinced us that a fair civilian trial is unthinkable under present circumstances, although that is what we thought was a reasonable expectation. No one saw that as a serious possibility, because there is not an independent judiciary. That is why recourse to President Clinton is so necessary.
I had been interested since I first heard of the sentencing of Lori Berenson in 1996. I recognized in her the kind of person the churches had sent by the score as mission interns and volunteers during the 1970's and 80's to Latin America, Southern Africa, South Korea, the Philippines and Eastern Europe. That is when I was a mission executive for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada and for the United Church of Christ. These young people were well-educated, politically aware, non-violent, deeply committed to social justice for the poor, and motivated by faith. I did not know if Lori Berenson was a religious person, but I had no doubt that her understanding of the suffering and oppression of the Third World was the same as ours. It came from the same protest against injustice which dignifies the human spirit by God's command to love the neighbor and to seek justice for the poor. It is not surprising to find that she first went to Central America with a group sponsored by the Quakers.
The impression she gave us was that of a person for whom acts of violence or encouragement of violence by others is unthinkable. Why? Because of her compassion for any human being, which has been evidenced by all who knew her. And because she is too intelligent to think that revolution in the 1990's by a handful of young people could be politically effective! She certainly might have been curious about that as a journalist. But she wrote last August: "I have never participated in the planning of a violent act, neither with the MRTA nor anybody else, neither have I promoted violence. And what is more, I do not believe in violence and it would not be possible for me to participate in violence." Like many others, I find it preposterous to think of her as a terrorist, whatever her circle of acquaintances was when she was arrested in Lima. That is the only reasonable assumption since there has not been a proper trial.
A visit strictly limited to one hour left us with sadness to see this generous, intelligent young woman confined twenty-two hours of every day to her small cell. The gravity of her incarceration as a "terrorist" means she has little or no social contact with other prisoners. We could tell that her body was beginning to give way, from her chapped hands, her weakened eyesight, her limited exercise, what she said about her digestion, and what we imagined of prison hygiene. She knows that the limits of her endurance already are stretched to the danger point. She recognized that her mental health is becoming precarious, and we guessed it could not be otherwise. Cardinal Vargas Alzamora said, "It is inhuman."
One realizes that judgments are made about her even though her story has not been heard. She told us that much said about her is not true, even absurd. Not only are there unsubstantiated charges but also rumors and speculations which have woven around her name a myth of sinister or naive collaboration with terrorists. Some people even are under the impression that she confessed to her accusers, which simply proves the degree of misinforamtion that confuses what is real and unreal in her situation.
We were given every consideration by the ambassador and consular officials, who arranged the visit through the Peruvian authorities. Embassy representatives have visited her many times and have gotten some concessions for her. We felt they showed attitudes of kindness and sympathy towards her which were sincere, saying they were glad we had come and giving their point of view on what would be most helpful. But resolution is in the hands of President Clinton, who I hope will obtain her release. A letter from the US Department of State April 20 says that she did not receive due process and that her life sentence is excessive. Some State Department communications give the impression, nonetheless, that she is considered guilty, trial or no trial. As a consequence, her mental and physical health are in jeopardy, while justice as a bond between friendly countries is held in contempt. I hope this hearing will help lead to her release.