Let Lori Berenson go

San Francisco Examiner -- 31 August 2000

American who ran afoul of Peru's anti-terrorism drive was unfairly imprisoned and should not face new trial

THE PERUVIAN government admitted on Monday that the 1996 military conviction and life sentence it imposed on a young American woman were invalid. But instead of freeing Lori Berenson after more than four years of unjust confinement, Peruvian authorities are planning to try her again in a civilian court on treason and terrorism charges.

Her first trial was outrageous by any legal standard. It was conducted by military judges who were hooded to conceal their identities, and no cross-examination by the defense was permitted.

Berenson, now 30, has maintained her innocence, though she openly proclaimed support for the leftist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, which she was accused of helping to plan a takeover of Peru's Congress.

Her naivete and incaution - if her contacts with the terrorist movement were nothing more - have been severely punished. Three years of her confinement were in a frigid prison 12,700 feet above sea level in the Andes, before she was moved to a lower altitude because of health concerns.

With her parents, retired professors, championing the cause from their Manhattan apartment, Lori Berenson's treatment has remained a sensitive issue in relations between Washington and the autocratic government of President Alberto Fujimori. "There is no basis in truth or law for holding Lori another day," says her father Mark Berenson. Many members of the U.S. Congress have joined in petitions for her release.

The Lima government's plan to conduct a new trial of Lori Berenson in a civilian court, rather than a restaging of the military proceeding that was overturned, is no reason to assume she will be treated fairly from here on out. The Peruvian judiciary is notorious for its lack of independence from political control.

And Fujimori himself made despicable use of Berenson's plight in his last, controversial campaign for re-election, when he attacked opposition candidate Alejandro Toledo for saying he might review the case. Fujimori accused Toledo of advocating Berenson's release, and Toledo's standing in polls suffered as a result because of the Peruvian public's backing of harsh anti-terrorist policies.

How Fujimori might exert his influence in a retrying of Berenson by a civilian court is an open question. He might want to advance his relations with the United States and with international organizations by ordering leniency, although a prosecutor says a new conviction must net her a 20-year sentence.

The point is that a fair, impartial trial is nobody's expectation in Fujimori's Peru, whether Berenson broke any law or not. She should be freed.