Frequently Asked Questions

Did the two Peruvian trials afford Lori due process?

No. Neither trial afforded Lori due process.

In January 1996 Lori was found guilty of treason and sentenced to life in prison by a secret hooded military tribunal while a hooded soldier held a gun to her head. There was no trial. These military tribunals have been condemned by the U.S. Department of State, Amnesty International, The Carter Center for Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch: Americas. In December 1998, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights stated that Lori Berenson was deprived of her liberty arbitrarily and that the government of Perú must take all necessary steps to remedy her wrongful incarceration.

The verdict was nullified and the sentence overturned in August 2000 following a review by the Supreme Council of Military Justice that finally admitted that it lacked any evidence to support the charges. However, instead of releasing her, Lori's case was remanded to Perú's Special Civilian Courts for Terrorism. According to the U.S. State Department's annual country reports, trials in these courts "fail to meet international standards of openness, fairness, and due process." The Organization of American States, the United Nations, and other international organizations concur. Specifically, the Inter-American Court of the Organization of American States ruled in a case in 1999 that Perú's anti-terrorism laws violate due process and any trial held under these laws violate the American Convention on Human Rights. Lori's civilian trial was conducted by holdovers from the Fujimori regime.

Quotemarks Lori's closing address to the court
Document 20 violations of due process
Document Statement by observer Anna Marie Gallagher
Document Statement by observer Mark Mitchell
Document Statement by observer Marie J. Manrique
Document Statement by religious delegation
Document Statement by Grahame Russell

The Three Phases of the Civilian Court Trial in Terrorism-Related Cases

The procedures for terrorism-related cases in the civilian courts, consists of three phases. In the first phase, the Investigative Phase, an "investigative" judge, in Lori's case Judge Romel Borda, takes testimony from the defendant and from witnesses. The second phase, the Public Phase or audiencias, is a trial before a three-judge panel, in Lori's case Chief Judge Marcos Ibazeta, Judge Eliana Elder Araujo and Judge Carlos Augusto Manrique. There is no jury. Following the court's verdict comes the third phase, the Appeals Phase. The defense and/or the prosecution can ask that the Supreme Court for Terrorism review the decision. (Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, this is not a court that deals with constitutional issues. It is simply an appeals court.)

The Court Decisions in the Civilian Trial of Lori Berenson

In June 2001, Lori was convicted of collaboration with the MRTA and given a 20-year sentence -- despite the fact that not one witness gave testimony nor was any evidence presented that would warrant such a conviction. The court, however, did drop all charges of leadership, membership, and militant involvement.

In February 2002, the Peruvian Supreme Court upheld Lori's conviction and 20-year sentence by a four-to-one vote. The dissenting opinion, offered by Judge Cabala, the President of the Supreme Court, argued that there was no evidence to convict Lori of collaboration and urged instead a conviction on the lesser charge of illicit association with a major reduction in length of sentence.

Some Selected Violations of Rights in Lori Berenson's Civilian Trial

Below is a an outline of some selected violations of rights in Lori's civilian trial:

Has Lori exhausted legal remedies?

Photo of Lori sitting in courtroom.

After months of delay, Perú's highest appeals court upheld the conviction and 20-year sentence imposed against Lori last June 20. The five-judge panel turned down her appeal that she was innocent of all charges and was imprisoned solely for her beliefs. Dr. Sandoval, Lori's lawyer, had argued that during the course of the civilian trial that commenced on August 28, 2000 there were numerous violations in fundamental due process and that no evidence was presented nor did any witness testify that would warrant a conviction. Dr. Sandoval said that the judges relied extensively on the tainted evidence taken from other prisoners under duress and threats of torture during the original 1995-6 military tribunals. Dr. Sandoval had also pointed out that Chief Judge Ibazeta had prejudiced Lori two years earlier but refused to recuse himself from the case and that the media, now known to be corrupted by the discredited Fujimori-Montesinos regime, had built up a strong negative public image of Lori that was impossible for her to overcome and that there was never one moment where she was presumed innocent requiring the State to prove guilt.

In January 1998 Lori filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS. Over the years the Commission held three hearings on her petition, the first focusing on the Military Tribunal and the last two on the Civilian Trial. The final hearing was in November 2001 and we are awaiting a final decision that we expect will be in Lori's favor. Should that be the case, the Commission will transmit their decision and recommendations to Perú and the Peruvian government will have sixty days to indicate if and how it intends to comply. The decision of the Commission is not binding, and Perú could decide to appeal to the Inter-American Court. Should they do so, the Commission would then represent Lori at this court, defending its recommendations. The decision of the Court will be binding on Perú.

Wasn't there a lot of evidence that Lori was guilty?

No. Lori was accused of: (1) Pretending to be married to Pacífico Castrellón in order to rent the house in La Molina to be used as a safe haven for the MRTA; (2) renting the apartment in San Borja to hide Nancy Gilvonio; (3) participating in indoctrination courses for MRTA members and preparing and serving food for them; (4) buying beepers and other electronic equipment for the MRTA; (5) obtaining press credentials for herself and Nancy Gilvonio in order to enter Congress and aid the MRTA in their plans to seize the Congress.

None of the accusations were supported by evidence. In particular:

Didn't Lori admit guilt in her January 1996 press presentation?

No. Many Peruvians have the wrongful impression that when Lori was presented to the press in January 1996 she admitted guilt. President Fujimori tried to "sell" this to the U.S. press in an interview in New York City in June 1998 but former U.S. Ambassador to Perú Dennis Jett came to Lori's defense and said that Lori never made such admission. What Lori said during her press presentation was that she thought the MRTA were revolutionaries, not terrorists.

This statement was offensive to many Peruvians who have suffered through years of fear and terrorism, but it was not an admission of affiliation or guilt, simply an expressed opinion, however unpopular. During the Public Phase of her trial, Lori finally saw a video of that 1996 press presentation and she apologized for sounding so angry. But she recounted the circumstances that caused that anger.

It is common in Perú for alleged leaders of what are deemed "terrorist groups" to be presented to the press. After her arrest, the police told Lori that since she was not being accused of leadership, she would not be "presented." However, a few days before her sentencing the police used psychological torture to prod her into making angry statements, which they knew would have a negative impact on the judge and the general public. For ten days, Lori was living in a tiny rat-infested cell with a wounded prisoner who was not receiving medical care.

At this point the authorities knew that Lori was ready to be presented. She was exhausted, disheveled, and anguished. She was told there were no microphones on the stage of the auditorium she was being taken to, so she must speak loudly. What came across was an extremely angry woman. The Peruvian media only showed clips of her, with a voice-over saying she admitted her guilt. In actuality, Lori was expressing her compassion for the people of Perú, her belief that she was being persecuted for wanting to help them. She never admitted any guilt or association with the MRTA. At the time of the statement Lori already knew she would be convicted (the military tribunal almost always convicts), and she knew this would be her only chance to express her views about the human rights abuses and repression in Perú.

Why doesn't Lori denounce the MRTA as terrorists?

Lori was asked repeatedly during her trial to denounce this group, or to repent or otherwise admit guilt, leading Peruvian writer Eduardo Gonzalez Viaña to compare Lori's trial to the Spanish Inquisition in Perú. Mr. Gonzalez insisted that asking an accused to renounce her beliefs and denounce others was wrong then and is wrong now. More than a hundred scholars, writers and university professors from around the world signed a letter by Peruvian writer Alfredo Pita to the Peruvian government criticizing Judge Ibazeta for subjecting Lori to humiliating practices, trying to intimidate her into renouncing her ideas, convictions and personal ties. (Type in references to web for Alfredo Pita and Eduardo Gonzalez Vienna)

However, Lori does not believe she has the right to judge another person. She has worked for much of her life on human rights and justice in Latin America. There is a history in Latin America of people living in poverty, without economic justice and under severe repression, having no channels to express political dissent. Lori empathizes with the struggle of the people to survive, to have dignity and to have basic political rights. But Lori has very clearly stated in letters to the human rights community, to friends and human rights groups and during the Public Phase of her trial that she condemns terrorism.

Lori has always maintained that she is imprisoned only for her beliefs, not for any actions or deeds. But the fact that Lori has an opinion that differs from the opinion of the U.S. government and the Peruvian government does not mean that she should be in prison. Gonzalez Viaña wrote, "The civilian court that currently judges her emphasizes her ideological beliefs more than irrefutably demonstrating her participation in a criminal act. The court's judges appear to ignore the fact that no democratic country punishes a person for thoughts, as rebellious as those thoughts might be."

To what extent did Lori know MRTA members?

Lori now knows that three of the people she met during the months she was in Perú before her arrest are MRTA members. But before her arrest she did not know their real names or that they were involved in MRTA activities. Lori had met Pacífico Castrellón, a Panamanian, while traveling to Perú. Lori was with him when he rented the La Molina house. Nancy Gilvonio (wife of Nestor Cerpa, MRTA leader) was arrested on the bus along with Lori. They had met a few weeks earlier and Lori knew her as a Bolivian photographer named Rosa. At some point Lori was introduced on a social basis to an MRTA leader, Miguel Rincón, but Rincón had used a different name and never discussed the MRTA. As Lori stated in an interview with The Washington Post, "My relationship with the other people accused was a social relationship, talking about things. Until I was in jail I finally figured out more or less what they are, which is much different than what I thought originally...." Lori had lived in the La Molina house along with Castrellón before the MRTA leader, using a pseudonym, sublet the fourth floor. It was a large house, like a large boarding house. She had never gone to the fourth floor, or into the rooms sublet to others. At the time of Lori's arrest she was living in an apartment across town in the district of San Borja.

Lori denied ever meeting MRTA leader Nestor Cerpa and the only (unverifiable) evidence otherwise was the word of Castrellón. At the Public Phase of the trial, although Pacífico Castrellón was a prosecution witness, he declined to accuse Lori of collaborating with the MRTA and said he never heard her talk about subversive activities or the group. He emphasized that the only people who went up to the fourth floor of the house were Rincón and the housekeeper, confirming Lori's testimony. All of those who lived on the fourth floor testified they never saw Lori until after their arrest. And Rincón told the court that Castrellón was a long-time, important member of the MRTA who brought Lori unknowingly into the picture to cover up MRTA activities. Rincón emphasized that Lori did not know who he was or his connection to the MRTA when he lived in the La Molina house and she did not know how Castrellón used her. Rincón said she was not a member of or a collaborator with the MRTA.

What was Lori doing in Perú?

Lori became interested in Perú after reading extensively about that country. Lori traveled to Perú in November 1994 and became further intrigued with the rich indigenous history, culture, and also interesting political atmosphere. In April 1992, Perú had witnessed a "self-coup" and political upheaval as President Alberto Fujimori attempted to bring peace and order to the chaotic nation with strong leadership and repressive anti-terrorism laws. Lori traveled throughout the country learning about the culture and meeting many poor Peruvians (not difficult to find in a country that has had poverty rates of over 50%).

After half a decade of hands-on experience with and study of poverty and the plight of Latin America, Lori was able to obtain assignments from two U.S. publications, Modern Times and Third World Viewpoint, to work as a free-lance journalist. She secured appropriate press credentials in Lima. At the time of her arrest she was researching articles about the effects of poverty on women in Perú. Her parents are in possession of some of the transcripts of her work, but the Peruvian anti-terrorist police took most of it when her apartment was searched.

What are prison conditions like?

Lori was confined for nearly three years at Yanamayo Maximum Security Military Prison in Puno at an altitude of 12,700 feet where the harsh climate, lack of heat, thin air, limited exercise, and poor food led to numerous medical problems. From October 1998 through August 2000, Lori was held at Socabaya Prison in Arequipa at a height of 7,600 feet where the climate was somewhat better, but where she spent much of the time in isolation, cut off from contact with the general prison population. On August 31, 2000, she was moved to the Santa Monica de Chorrillos Prison in Lima for her civilian trial. Prison conditions improved dramatically under the interim Paniagua government following the departure of the disgraced ex- President Fujimori. However, recently there has been a regression in the respect for fundamental human rights of political prisoners. On December 21, 2001, at 3 a.m. security units wielding clubs and spraying tear gas, brutally attacked the cellblock where Lori and 17 others were sleeping. All the women were beaten, tear gassed and sexually molested. Lori and one other prisoner were dragged from their third floor cells, taken in nightclothes, hundreds of miles to the north to two separate prisons. Lori is now held at Huacariz Prison in Cajamarca at an altitude of 9,000 feet but to date has not suffered further adverse effects of the altitude. The Peruvian government "hid" the brutality when the Justice Minister publicly said the moves were normal and that prisoners were not abused.

Why doesn't Lori apply to transfer to the U.S.?

There is a treaty between the U.S. and Perú that would allow U.S. citizens imprisoned in Perú to serve their sentences in U.S. prisons. Under the terms of the treaty the government of Perú has the right to deny applications to transfer. In April 1999, the Peruvian Congress passed a law denying the right to transfer to those foreigners convicted of treason or terrorism. Thus, the transfer treaty no longer applies to Lori.

However, even if the treaty did apply to Lori she would not take advantage of it because the conditions of the treaty would require that she sign a statement accepting her sentence and that she would not challenge this once arriving in the U.S. Lori is innocent of the charges against her and will not accept a sentence for a crime she did not commit.

What has the U.S. Government done on Lori's behalf?

As part of the agenda at the historic meeting in Lima on March 23, 2002, President Bush raised Lori's case with Peruvian President Toledo. As Secretary of State Powell told the press, the U.S. government will be awaiting the impending decision and recommendations of the O.A.S. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Lori's petition has been under review for over four-years and the Commission has held three public hearings.

At an earlier meeting in June 2001, President Bush had asked President Toledo to consider a humanitarian resolution to Lori's case. Over the years many members of the U.S. Congress have written letters on Lori's behalf. In July 2000 a majority of the House of Representatives and 44 Senators signed "Dear Colleague" letters to President Clinton urging him to secure Lori's release.