Lori Berenson is Illegally Imprisoned

The Times of Trenton -- 5 May 2000


by Tom Gardner

Tom Gardner is a resident of Fleming

If Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori cannot even meet international standards for a fair election, how can his government be believed in its accusations against Lori Berenson, an American citizen unfairly sentenced to life imprisonment in Peru?

In the recent Peruvian election, President Fujimori would have liked nothing better than to have been allowed quietly to steal the election from his opponent, Alejandro Toledo. The fact that Fujimori failed can be attributed in large part to two factors, the objections of the international community and the active protests of the people of Peru.

"If the people had not taken to the streets respectfully, in peace, raising their voices, there would already be fraud consummated." Toledo remarked.

In order to avoid a second round of voting, Fujimori needed to obtain more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. He seemed poised to do that, through election fraud, when the United States, the European Union and the Organization of American States weighted in. They said they would consider a first-round victory by Fujimori highly suspect. Concurrently, the people of Peru, who were willing to risk their own safety for a fair electoral process (Fujimori's utter disdain for the rights and safety of those who disagree with him is notorious), protested in force.

The combination of diplomatic pressure and domestic demonstrations brought Fujimori up short. His cronies complained about "foreign, especially U.S. interference," but the warnings were effective. Although Fujimori claimed that the thousands of people who took to the streets were victims of "demagoguery," it was found, after days of delay, that Fujimori actually did not have the number of votes needed to avoid a run-off election. Fujimori was not able to carry out his fraudulent plan because domestic demands for fair elections and international mistrust voiced event by one of Fujimori's staunchest supporters, the U.S. government.

There will be a run-off between Fujimori and Toledo soon. Fujimori may win, but Peruvians have made it clear that they require any victory be the result of a relatively fair electoral process.

Here is proof that applying diplomatic pressure works. Citizens' voices demanding their government representatives to listen to them cannot long be ignored. Absent these protests, Fujimori's fraud would almost certainly have gone off as planned.

Why hasn't the U.S. government shown the same concern and exerted the same kind of effective pressure on Fujimori on behalf of Lori Berenson?

In 1995, a Peruvian military tribunal, whose members remained hooded throughout, found Lori Berenson, a U.S. citizen, guilty of treason against Peru. Lori was denied the right to defend herself, denied the right to see the 'evidence' against her, denied the right to cross-examine witnesses - in short, denied the right to due process. Numerous international organizations have looked at Lori's case and declared that obviously Lori's trial was a sham, and Peru is detaining her arbitrarily under conditions that are cruel, degrading and inhumane.

Lori's parents, Rhoda and Mark Berenson, however, know even more. They know Lori is entirely innocent of the charges leveled against her. They know that if the U.S. government had pressured Peru for Lori's release, she might well be home today.

It is not unreasonable of the Berensons to expect our government to do this. The U.S. Code 22 Section 1732 obliges the president to do everything in his power, short of declaring war, to obtain the release of a U.S. citizen being illegally imprisoned by a foreign country.

Peru is detaining Lori Berenson illegally, a fact verified by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and by a Peruvian prime minister. There is little question that diplomatic pressure would work.

So why isn't Lori home?

For some reason, Clinton, though obliged by law to act, has done little.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives attempted to pass a resolution calling for Lori's release. The resolution was endorsed by 180 representatives, but Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican who represents New Jersey's Fourth Congressional District, led the charge to defeat it. Rep. Smith expressed reservations about supporting a resolution that called for freeing Lori, suggesting that all any resolution should say was that she should receive a fair trial," he said, after defeating the resolution and dooming Lori to yet more suffering.

Rep. Smith gave no indication of where this "fair trial" should be held - a question that must be addressed since even the U.S. State Department has concluded that a fair trial for Lori would be impossible in Peru under current conditions.

That is precisely why Lori's supporters called for a resolution demanding her release. Tragically for Lori, however, Mr. Smith seems unable to grasp this subtlety.

Moreover, Reps. Jim Saxton, R-Third District, Marge Roukema, R-Fifth District, and Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-Eleventh District have not yet elected to sign the "Dear Colleague" letter calling for Lori's release that is presently circulating in the House. When a similar letter circulated last year, all of New Jersey's other representatives signed it, and it is expected that all will sign this one, except Reps. Smith, Saxton, Roukema and Frelinghuysen.

Both of New Jersey's senators have signed a similar "Dear Colleague" letter circulating in the Senate. These letters exhort the president to act on Lori's behalf, as he is obliged by law to do.

Reps. Smith, Saxton, Roukema and Frelinghuysen evidently believe, along with the president, that freeing Lori Berenson is not their job.

I disagree. The Berensons disagree. Nearly half the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate disagree. The U.S. Code disagrees. Freeing Lori is their job, when our representatives ignore our just pleas, we must raise our voices even louder.

Peru's secret military tribunals violate international law. It is illegal to imprison someone for a lengthy period of time without affording her the basic right of due process. Lori Berenson has been wrongful imprisoned for over four years. To refuse to sign the letter is to fail to uphold fundamental American values based in our Constitution.

An elected official cannot say that it is OK for an American citizen to remain in prison without being proved guilty. The same dirty tricks and lies Fujimori used to try to discredit political opponents were also used to discredit Lori Berenson. A government promising free and fair elections while delivering fraud, as Fujimori tried to do, is no democracy.

Please ask your representatives and the president to do their jobs and carry out the law.

It works. Just ask the people of Peru.