Why Not Speak Out? The Berenson Case and America's Conscience

The New York TImes -- 15 April 2000

by Anthony Lewis

Abroad and at home

BOSTON -- When the Serbs captured three U.S. soldiers during the Kosovo war a year ago, President Clinton warned President Milosevic of Yugoslavia: "Make no mistake -- America takes care of its own."

It is a fine sentiment. But the president has signally failed to apply it in a case that should nag at his and the country's conscience. It is the case of Lori Berenson.

Ms. Berenson, a 30-year-old American, is being held in an isolation cell in Peru -- a cell without light, heat or running water. "She has been in prison four years, four months, ten days today," her father, Mark Berenson, said when I met her parents Monday.

The Peruvian government of Alberto Fujimori says that Ms. Berenson helped the Tupac Amaru terrorist movement: a charge that she firmly denies. She was convicted of "treason" -- against a country of which she is not a citizen -- after what no civilized society would regard as a trial.

Military officers wearing ski masks to conceal their identities conducted the proceeding. Ms. Berenson was not allowed to call witnesses or testify herself. She was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

"I have never participated in the planning of a violent act . . .," she wrote to human rights groups.

"I do not believe in violence, and it would not be possible for me to participate in violence."

What she does believe -- a left-wing view of poverty and misery in Peruvian society -- she does not conceal. Indeed, her outspoken statement of those views played into the hands of President Fujimori.

When she was arrested, in November 1995, she was held without access to the outside world for 39 days, the last 11 in a cell with a naked, desperately ill woman who was given no medical care. Suddenly Ms. Berenson was brought out, put in front of television cameras and told to talk.

Speaking in angry tones, in Spanish, she said: "Nobody can deny that in Peru there is much injustice. . . . If it is a crime to worry about the sub-human conditions in which the majority of this population lives, then I will accept my punishment."

Mr. Fujimori used the video clip to paint Ms. Berenson as a terrorist -- and an interfering American. One of his popular achievements as president has been the crushing of terrorist movements. I cannot know for sure whether Ms. Berenson conspired with the Tupac Amaru or, as she says, simply interviewed some members -- names unknown to her -- as a freelance journalist. What is beyond doubt is that her trial lacked any semblance of due process of law. Amnesty International called it a "parody of justice." Javier Valle Riestra, a noted constitutional lawyer, was Peru's prime minister until he condemned the Berenson trial methods and said she should be pardoned. He did not last long in the Fujimori government after that.

The flagrantly illegitimate trial makes President Clinton's passive posture on the case puzzling. When 180 members of the House urged him last year to secure Ms. Berenson's release by carrying out a statute that calls for U.S. action on behalf of Americans held improperly abroad, he replied only that he was seeking a "just and expeditious solution." He has not condemned the lack of due process at the trial.

Senator John McCain, who knows about unjust imprisonment firsthand, signed a copy of his book for Ms. Berenson: "To Lori, Best Wishes & Admiration. God Bless." But he has not spoken out against the nature of her trial.

The election in Peru this week demonstrated, in two ways, why the Berenson case demands U.S. action. Mr. Fujimori used smears, dirty tricks and ballot-rigging. But when other Latin countries and the U.S. put on real pressure, he held off from giving himself a first-round victory. Pressure works.

"The lack of law, the innuendoes in the election were there in Lori's case all along," her mother, Rhoda Berenson, said to me.

Her father was a professor of statistics at Baruch College in New York for 30 years, her mother a professor of physics at Nassau Community College for 25. Both have given up their jobs, their normal lives and their savings to campaign for Lori Berenson's freedom. Every two weeks or so, one of them flies 8,000 miles to speak with Lori for an hour through a screen.

"I totally believe my daughter," Mr. Berenson said. "One day, God willing, you'll see for yourself."