Berensons Counter Perú's Responses to Frequently Asked Questions

August 1999; revised October 2000

In the summer of 1999 the Peruvian government compiled a list of responses to FAQs (frequently asked questions) about Lori Berenson's case and the Peruvian Embassy sent this document to those who had written to Peruvian officials. Later, these FAQs were included on the Peruvian Embassy's web site and then, in October 2000 they were revised and updated.

Interestingly, the Peruvian government's past rhetoric has far exceeded its present claims. This was the first concrete statement of the charges against Lori Berenson, none of which are serious enough to warrant a life sentence, and none of which are true. In addition, as is typical of the propaganda used by the Peruvian government when discussing Lori Berenson, insinuating guilt by association, the document contains a prominent paragraph at the beginning about MRTA activities in Perú, although MRTA activities have nothing to do with Lori Berenson. Moreover, this document tries to justify Lori Berenson's trial by a military tribunal, outrageously claiming it was a "proper trial" that did not violate international law, and it also attempts to justify her inhumane treatment in Peruvian prisons.

The complete text of the Peruvian FAQs document is reprinted below. Following each response is a counter-response from Lori Berenson's parents, typed in blue. Other FAQs sent directly to the Committee to Free Lori Berenson can be found here.

The Lori Berenson case

Lori Berenson is an American citizen from the state of New York who was arrested in Lima on November 30, 1995, for her active involvement with the terrorist group known as MRTA (or "Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.") The Embassy receives several letters from U.S. citizens asking to be informed about her arrest, trial, and current conditions. This FAQs document may help to answer some of those concerns and explain the reasons why the Peruvian justice convicted her to life in prison.

What about MRTA and terrorism in Peru?

Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and MRTA are two active terrorist groups that were involved in an extremely violent terrorist escalation over the past decade. Both groups were designated "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" by the U.S. Secretary of State in October 1997, under 1996 anti-terrorism legislation. Their terrorist activities caused the death of 30,000 Peruvians, left hundred of thousands orphaned or homeless and destroyed public and private property estimated at US$ 25 billion. The subversive group MRTA was responsible for continual assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, extortion, robberies and attacks, such as the assault on the American Embassy in Lima. In December 1996, the MRTA seized the Japanese Ambassador's residence in Lima, taking 72 hostages for 126 days. It has also been involved with drug traffickers in the Huallaga Valley and other coca-growing regions in Perú. Neither of these nihilistic groups can he seen as romantic revolutionaries seeking social justice. They have fought against three consecutive democratically-elected civilian Governments in an attempt to impose their radical Marxist policies by force of arms.

Of what was Ms. Berenson accused?

She was charged by the prosecution of belonging to the leadership of the MRTA and of being involved in the preparations for an attack on the Peruvian Congress with the intention of kidnapping some of its members. The group sought to obtain hostages in order to exchange them for imprisoned members of the MRTA. After the conspirators were captured, the MRTA waited one more year to perpetrate a similar offensive.

What is the evidence?

The MRTA plot was discovered by the National Office Against Terrorism (DINCOTE), a Police Intelligence Division that has captured important terrorist leaders such as Abimael Guzman, leader of the Shining Path. A patient surveillance mission enabled DINCOTE to capture the entire MRTA military command responsible for the planned assault. Among them was MRTA's number 3, Miguel Rincón, arrested with his men in a suburban Lima home whose owners, an elderly woman, her daughter, and her 8 year grandson, had previously been taken hostage.

At the same time as the "military arm" of the plot was captured, DINCOTE discovered the conspirators' safe house. Inside, the police found weapons, ammunition and maps of the Congress building. Police investigations determined that Ms. Berenson was the tenant of the safe house and was involved in the preparation of the failed attack. It was determined that she had drawn some of the maps of Congress after posing as a reporter with fake ID's to gain access to the building, in order to draft the sketches. Ms. Berenson was arrested in the company of Nancy Gilvonio, wife of MRTA leader Nestor Cerpa Cartollini, who was to lead the take-over of the Lima residence of the Japanese Ambassador in December 1996.

Why was she tried by a military instead of a civilian tribunal?

In the 1980's, when terrorism started in Perú. terrorists were tried by civilian courts in open trials. Perú's Civil Code did not even contemplate a crime of terrorism. Terrorists took full advantage of the mild legislation. They began to threaten judges and their families. As a result, judges became afraid to impose harsh sentences on convicted terrorists. Several were released, others were sent to prison for 6 or 10 years at most, and released after serving half their sentence. Some terrorists gained absolute control of the prisons in which they were being held. This situation encouraged terrorist leaders and cadres to pursue their activities without fear and with impunity, further contributing to the growth of both subversive movements. In 1992, in order to confront this very critical situation, the Government adopted a set of emergency measures and within this framework enacted strict anti-terrorist legislation based upon the legal systems prevalent in Western democracies that had had to combat terrorism. In other words, the legal provisions applied in Germany, Britain and Italy to try the Baden Meinhoff gang, the IRA and the Red Brigades. Of a provisional and emergency nature, Perú's anti-terrorist legislation provided that persons charged with crimes of aggravated terrorism or treason (defined in terms of belonging to the terrorist leadership or participating in terrorist attacks) were to be tried by military tribunals. Those found guilty could face sentences ranging from 25 years to life imprisonment. Article 173 of the 1993 Constitution indicates that military courts and the Code of Military Justice does not apply to civilians, with the sole exception of those who have committed treason or aggravated terrorism determined by law.

Did Ms. Berenson have a proper trial?

On the basis of the evidence, Ms Berenson was charged with treason (the legal term is aggravated terrorism). She was tried and sentenced according to legislation approved by the Peruvian Congress. Ms. Berenson had the benefit of legal counsel and her lawyer was empowered to enter appropriate pleas in her defense and to argue the case from the viewpoint of the accused. Accordingly, in keeping with the legal order outlined above, she did benefit from due process.

Why was her trial not like proceedings int the U.S.?

Each country has its own set of rules, laws and procedures. The fact that Ms. Berenson's trial was not similar to those held in the United States does not mean it was invalid. Perú's legal system is based upon Roman-Germanic Law, while the American system is based on common law. The conditions under which Ms. Berenson's trial was held were exceptional, because special legislation was and remains in effect against criminals convicted of acts of terrorism. Penalties and legal systems change from country to country. For instance, death penalty is not applied in Perú.

Can a foreigner be charged with treason?

The argument has been made that the charge of treason is not applicable, but it is not correct for two reasons. Firstly, as noted above, this is a matter of legal terminology. Secondly, Perú is not the only country in the world to use that term. For example, the Constitution of the United States specifically recognizes the crime of treason. The U.S. Supreme Court stated that foreigners could be charged and sentenced in the United States for treason because they must obey the laws of the country in which they find themselves (Carlisle Vs United States, December 1872).

Has Peru violated international law in this case?

Perú has not acted in contravention of International Law. If this assertion is based on the fact that the trial was not open to the public, it must be pointed out that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights contains an exception to the right to a public hearing when it provides for the possibility that "The press and the public may be excluded from all or part of a trial for reasons of morals, public order or national security". In addition, Article IV of the Covenant contemplates the possibility that, in an exceptional situation that threatens the life of the nation, the existence of which is officially proclaimed, States Parties may adopt measures derogating from their obligations under the Covenant, to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation. The American Convention on Human Rights enshrines the same concept in Article XXVII. Therefore, the trial of Lori Berenson has taken place within the limits and exceptions clearly stipulated in contemporary international law in this field.

How was Ms. Berenson's regime in prison?

The regime under which she was in prison is similar to the regime in maximum security prisons in the United States, to wit one hour a day in the courtyard, one visit a month in a screened parlor, the right to work in her personal cell and access to penitentiary facilities such as legal assistance, psychological and medical attention and social services. She had access to visits from Consular Officers and relatives.

Has she been charged just because she is an American?

Absolutely not. Peruvian law applies to everyone regardless of origin, nationality, race, gender or creed. The United States enjoys friendly relations with Perú. Both countries currently cooperate in several fields, including efforts to interdict the flow of narcotics to the United States. The Peruvian Air Force has successfully interdicted narcotics-trafficking aircraft, and has significantly curbed the flow of narcotics through Peruvian air space. Bilateral assistance to Perú, including food aid and disaster relief and rehabilitation during the 1990-97 period totaled several million dollars. The Agency for International Development's largest South American program is in Perú. The United States also supports Perú's efforts to become more integrated with the international financial community. Those efforts, together with increased economic and social stability, have resulted in a substantial increase in U.S. investment and tourism in Perú in recent years. The USA is the second largest investor in Perú after Spain. In 1997, approximately 140,000 U.S. citizens visited Perú for business, tourism, and study. That number increased in 1998. Currently about 10,000 Americans reside in Perú within a friendly and safe environment, several hundred U.S. social and religious volunteers work peacefully in the country and over 200 U.S. companies are represented there.

But she is a U.S. citizen in a foreign land!

Nationality does not confer the privilege of immunity nor impunity. Currently there are dozens of Peruvian nationals serving prison terms in the U.S., one of them in death row. There are also about 12 American citizens arrested in Perú for attempting to smuggle drugs into the United States. U.S. citizens are subject to the laws of the countries that they visit, just as foreigners who visit the United States must obey local laws.


The Supreme Council of Military Justice of Perú announced on August 28, 2000, through press release, its decision to accept the appeal based on new evidence, for a review of the sentence of the military court that condemned Ms. Lori Berenson to life imprisonment for the crime of aggravated terrorism and treason against the nation. Consequently, the aforementioned sentence has been annulled and the case has been passed to the civilian courts for judgment within the framework of their competence and jurisdictional autonomy. (See attached press release below.)

On August 31, 2000, Ms. Berenson was transferred to Santa Monica Women's Prison in Chorrillos, Lima.

Press Release - September 25, 2000
Supreme Council of Military Justice

The Supreme Council of Military Justice announces the following to the public:

  1. As of December 7, 1999, Lori Helene Berenson Mejia, who had been sentenced, appealed for the extraordinary review of the sentence that had condemned her to life imprisonment as author of the crime of treason against the nation.
  2. On August 18, 2000, the Full Court of the Supreme Council of Military Justice resolved to accept the legality of the aforementioned extraordinary appeal thereby nullifying the Supreme executive order that condemned the person in reference.
  3. For its part, the Military Court charged with judging the crime of treason against the nation, in observance of legal standards in effect, resolved on August 24, 2000, to refrain from hearing the case with respect to Lori Helene Berenson Mejia in favor to the civil courts; As a consequence, the Military Court has sent certified copies of the procedural documents to the Public Prosecutor so that they may proceed in accordance with their attributes. Lima, August 28, 2000

Office of Public Relations of the Supreme Council of Military Justice