One Trial was Bad Enough

The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), Editorial -- 30 August 2000

Lori Berenson is a 30-year-old American who was sentenced to life in prison four years ago by a secret Peruvian military court. Berenson's judges wore masks; she was denied witnesses, lawyers and cross-examination.

She was convicted of treason, even though she's a foreigner, under an anti-terrorism law so vague and Draconian as to be legally meaningless. Even the Peruvian government has had second thoughts, and thousands of Peruvians convicted under that law have been released.

Yet Berenson has remained in a series of high-altitude, maximum-security prisons, usually in solitary confinement. The few visitors she is allowed say her health has suffered greatly.

The blatant unfairness of her trial, and the Peruvian government's refusal until now to order a new one, have been irritants in U.S.-Peruvian relations. Those relations have been going downhill since May, when Peru's increasingly autocratic president Alberto Fujimori, engineered another term in an election shot through with fraud.

Berenson seems to have been a warmhearted if naive idealist who embraced leftist Latin American causes. She had the bad judgment to get caught up in Peru's suppression of a brutal guerrilla movement. The Peruvian government says she was plotting with the guerrillas to blow up Peru's Congress.

Yet her trial was such a travesty that few people aside from herself may ever know the truth. She says she is innocent, but she was guilty of being an American at a time when the Peruvian government did not want to seem as if it was being pushed around by Uncle Sam.

Official U.S. protests have been almost embarrassingly ineffectual. Berenson's parents, both retired college professors, have kept the case alive.

Now Peru's top military court has overturned Berenson's life sentence and ordered a new trial in a civilian court. But Fujimori's hold over the judiciary has made even a civilian trial a questionable exercise in jurisprudence.

Peruvian human rights activists say the verdict will probably be whatever Fujimori decides. If that is the case, Fujimori should pardon and release Lori Berenson. The Peruvian legal system had its chance and botched it. Let her go.