The history of Lori Berenson's arrest and incarceration

Peruvian military anti-terrorism police arrested Lori in the early evening of November 30, 1995 on a bus in downtown Lima. She had just left the Congress where she was researching articles she was preparing for two U.S.-based magazines. Until August 28, 2000, when the Supreme Council of Military Justice threw out her conviction and sentence, Lori had been serving a life sentence with no chance of parole in harsh Peruvian maximum-security prisons. She was originally charged with "treason against the fatherland," based on accusations of her leadership role in a revolutionary guerrilla movement, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).

Lori never had anything resembling a trial. She was never even formally notified of the charges against her. From 1992 through 1998, persons accused of treason or terrorism in Perú had their guilt determined by a hooded judge. In the military courts the judges need not have had any legal training. Military courts had a 97% conviction rate, and a host of internationally unacceptable practices.

Lori has always maintained she is innocent of the preposterous charges. She has said she was never a member, let alone a leader of the MRTA. She has also made it clear that she could never be involved in violent or terrorist acts.

Arrest, interrogation, press presentation, and "trial"

November 1995: The Arrest

December 1995: The Interrogation

January 1996: Presentation and "Trial"

Violations of International and Peruvian law

Lori is one of the thousands of accused whose trial has not satisfied international standards in laws and covenants ratified by Perú and mentioned in Article 105 of its own 1993 Constitution. The following are the four international treaties that Perú has broken:

The following are some of the rights violated in the case of Lori Berenson in her military tribunal: :

On October 7, 1998 Lori was moved to Socabaya Prison in Arequipa, one day before a public hearing on her January 22, 1998 petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was to be held in Washington DC. The Peruvian government told the Commission it moved Lori from the harsh Yanamayo Prison situated in the frigid Andes at a height of 12,700 feet to demonstrate its respect for human rights. It admitted Lori had suffered some severe medical problems at Yanamayo.

The Socabaya Prison for women had not been a maximum-security prison and since Lori was a maximum-security prisoner, she was not permitted any interaction with the general prison population. She was placed in total isolation in a separate wing where for four months she was not permitted to see, hear, or speak to other prisoners. The guards who brought Lori food three times a day to her cell did not engage her in conversation and when she spent her allowed one-hour of time in the yard she was alone.

Following two Urgent Action Alerts from Amnesty International, citing cruel and inhumane treatment and psychological torture under Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with help from the Catholic Church and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Lori's total isolation ended at the end of January 1999 when three other maximum security prisoners were brought to Socabaya and placed in the same wing.

Lori remained in Socabaya Prison until August 31, 2000, when she was brought to Lima and placed in the Santa Monica de Chorrillos maximum security prison for women so that she could "participate" in her civilian trial that had commenced three days earlier -- the same day that the Supreme Council of Military Justice had nullified her conviction for treason and her life sentence.

The Civilian Trial

The United States Department of State, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch:Americas, WOLA, and the Organization of American States have all declared that trials in Perú's special civilian courts for terrorism related cases fail to meet international standards of fairness and due process. Lori's civilian was no exception. During the three-month public phase of the trial (March 20, 2001 to June 20, 2001) there were 33 courtroom sessions and during this time Lori faced the judges and prosecutors and responded to their questions for more than 26 hours.

"Trial" or "Inquisistion"?

Many Peruvian intellectuals were appalled at the process. The writer Eduardo Gonzalez Viana referred to Lori's trial as the return of the Spanish Inquisition to Lima and writer Alfredo Pita sent a letter to the Peruvian government signed by more than 100 scholars, artists, human rights activists, religious leaders, and medical doctors condemning the courtroom bullying by the judges and the prosecutors. Former Congressman Joe Scarborough (Republican, Florida), a lawyer, attended one of the early public sessions, observed the situation, and said, "the court is stacked against her." It was clear that the three judges were working together with the two prosecutors in an effort to convict Lori, despite lack of evidence. Over and over they hounded Lori to denounce her beliefs and Lori would respond that she was being imprisoned only for her beliefs.

Courtroom Prejudice

Lori's civilian trial was fraught with prejudice from the day it was announced in August 2000. Prior to the commencement of the public phase of the trial on March 20, 2001, Chief Judge Marcos Ibazeta refused to recuse himself from the case even though he was presented with evidence demonstrating his public prejudice against Lori in July 1999. Judge Ibazeta apparently put personal ambition over ethics -- he obviously wanted to participate as chief judge in Lori's highly publicized trial because he was simultaneously one of five candidates who were finalists in the Peruvian Congress election of country Ombudsman, an important position within the Peruvian government. The election was held during the second month of the three-month public proceedings and although Judge Ibazeta received the most publicity he was not elected to the position he coveted. During the course of the trial, however, he used the media as best he could to gain publicity for his bid for the prestigious position. In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais (April 22, 2001) Judge Ibazeta incomprehensibly said that Lori would be acquitted if she can convince the court of her innocence. Modern day Peruvian law and the American Convention on Human Rights to which Perú is a signatory both require that the state prove the individual guilty, not the individual having to prove innocence.

Overall Prejudice

From the moment Lori's case was thrown out of the military court and remanded to the civilian court the media blasted the move as an example of President Fujimori succumbing to pressure from the United States. Mr. Fujimori was attacked in the media by loyal Peruvian politicians as well as by his opponents for permitting the "gringa terrorista" to have a civilian trial. Members of the Peruvian cabinet joined in the debate along with judges, human rights groups, and the Peruvian public. Owing to the Fujimori-Montesinos propaganda machine that had represented Lori for so long as the "symbol of violence and terrorism" in Perú, the poisoned public was prejudiced against her. And now the Fujimori-Montesinos-controlled media had a "field day." Editorials, op eds, articles, letters to the editor were given space to promote their blatantly biased views. And even one day before the public trial started, one of Perú's most highly respected international human rights advocates Ronald Gamarra prejudged Lori in a New York Times quote, outrageously saying that if Lori receives a fair public trial she will be condemned.

The courtroom proceedings began on March 20, 2001 with Lori in a cage. She argued that aside from the humiliation of being placed in a cage for her trial the psychological impact on the audience is guilt rather than a presumption of innocence -- a violation of a fundamental right under the American Declaration of Human Rights. Over the subsequent 32 courtroom sessions Lori was placed directly in front of the bars of the cage -- with the ominous implication that she will soon be behind them again.

Prior to her sentencing on June 20, 2001, Lori was permitted to address the court. Speaking for nearly 40 minutes, Lori calmly, clearly, and passionately maintained her innocence and once again discredited the claims of the prosecution, restated her beliefs, and expressed her love for Perú, its people, and its future. The Court then recessed and a few hours later reconvened and although there was no evidence presented or testimony given to base this on, the judges sentenced Lori to 20 years in prison for collaboration. Interestingly, in its decision, the Court publicly denounced the illegitimacy of her prior military tribunal and acquitted Lori not only of leadership in a terrorist group, it also acquitted her of membership and militancy.

The EFE news service summed up Lori's situation best in a recent review: "Lori Berenson, aged 32, was judged two times for the same crime of terrorism, once in a military tribunal - and then in a civilian forum." In legal parlance, this is called double jeopardy - and that is but one of many due process violations that made this trial more a "public happening" or circus than a legitimate court proceeding. And Judge Ibazeta, obviously not wanting to offend the media in his bid for Ombudsman, never once admonished the journalists and the camera crews for their lack of order in the courtroom. He also failed to point out their biases and errors during his interviews, allowing Lori to be continually referred to in the media as the "gringa terrorista" instead of the "alleged terrorista."

A complete account of the civilian trial through the sentencing is presented in the epilogue to the book Lori: My Daughter Wrongfully Imprisoned in Peru (Northeastern University Press) and discussed at length in response to FAQs.

Perú's Supreme Court of Appeal Upholds Verdict

After months of delay, Perú's highest appeals court upheld the conviction and 20-year sentence imposed against Lori on June 20, 2001. 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.

Future Possibilities

Lori has exhausted her judicial options in Perú. However, President Toledo now has the power to investigate the case and grant a pardon or clemency. In addition, a petition was put forth in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) as a part of the Organization of American States, after the first trial and supplemented after the second trial. The Commission issued a ruling in the spring of 2002.

The basic conclusions of the Commission were that in neither the military trial nor the civil trial was Lori given due process. In April 2002, Perú was given 90 days in which to comply with the IACHRs recommendations which included restoration of Lori's rights, and reparations. Perú did not comply and now the case will go to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (the Court). The case in the Court will be the Inter-American Commission v.s. Perú. The hearing should take place in early 2004. It is expected that the Court will rule in Lori's favor in late 2004 (More information on the Inter-American Human Rights Court.)

Following President Bush's historic visit to Lima on March 23, 2002, the position of the United States Government has been that both countries give serious consideration to the Commission's decision and recommendation. Lori agrees with this view, as do her parents. Peruvian President Toledo has said he would follow the conclusions of the Court.