Jailed U.S. Woman Condemns Peruvian Prison System

Reuters -- 6 September 2000

WASHINGTON - Lori Berenson, a U.S. woman jailed on terrorism charges in Peru, said in a radio interview broadcast Wednesday that Peruvian authorities tortured, harassed and killed people in prisons.

Amy Goodman, host of Pacifica Radio's daily ``Democracy Now!'' program, said she secretly interviewed Berenson at Socabaya Prison in the southern city of Arequipa in March 1999, but did not release it until now out of fear that there would be repercussions for Berenson and other Peruvian prisoners.

``In the Dinkote (Peru's special anti-terrorism police force) and other cases, in less public places, including recent cases, they've used pretty heavy torture, they've killed people and tortured,'' Berenson told Pacifica.

In a surprise reversal, Peru last week annulled Berenson's life sentence and granted her a civilian retrial, reopening a case that human rights group Amnesty International has called a ''parody of justice''.

Berenson, 30, a New York journalist jailed for life in 1996 as a Marxist rebel, was moved to a high-security women's prison in Lima from the Socabaya prison.

She was sentenced to life by a hooded military judge in 1996 for treason after being found guilty of being a leader of the Cuban-inspired Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and plotting to attack Congress. Berenson says she is innocent.

In the interview -- her first since being sentenced -- Berenson reiterated her innocence but expressed doubt that she would ever get a fair trial in Peru.

``I think it's a way of delaying it, and civilian trials in Peru also can last six years,'' she told Goodman. ``With such publicity that I've had, such negative publicity that I've had in Peru, I would never get a fair trial.''

She described the conditions of her imprisonment as extremely difficult, citing cases in which ``they used to send in the special forces of the police and actually hit, whack people on the head.''

Berenson also said her health had deteriorated in jail, but noted that some women in the jail needed wheelchairs ``because of cerebral damage from (what) ... I believe was torture.''

She said she was not allowed visitors and had not been permitted to meet with her Peruvian lawyer at all before she gave her statement during her military trial.

Berenson said no evidence was presented at the trial, adding ``I am innocent of the charges they made against me.''

Asked about U.S. efforts to get her released, she said, ''There's been some pressure at certain times but not heavy pressure, not heavy enough pressure because I'm still here.''

Berenson came to Peru in 1994 as a reporter for leftist U.S. magazines and her case has been a source of friction between Peru and the United States.

``Democracy Now!'' is a one-hour daily program that goes out to 35 public radio stations in cities such as Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco and Washington.

Goodman said she got in to see Berenson by joining a clergyman and human rights activists who had traveled to the jail. Peruvian authorities did not know she had been able to tape an interview.

``The fact is that the Peruvian prison authorities have not let anyone speak to her in five years,'' Goodman said. ``I feel that it's very important for her voice to be heard. The only thing that can be heard is the government's case against her.''