Bring Lori Berenson Home from Imprisonment in Peru

Rochester (NY) Democrat & Chronicle -- 7 September 2000

by Dr. Arnold H. Matlin, Guest Essayist

Lori Berenson is a 30-year-old U.S. citizen being held as a political prisoner in Peru. She has endured almost five years in harsh Peruvian prisons. Lori Berenson was convicted of "treason" against Peru by a hooded judge in a secret military tribunal. Although she denied all charges against her, Ms. Berenson had no chance to defend herself during this "trial." Now, after she has suffered so much, the Supreme Military Council of Peru has nullified her original sentence. Obviously, the next logical step would be to allow Ms. Berenson to return home. Instead of this, the government of Peru has announced that she must stand trial again for crimes everyone knows she did not commit.

(As the father of two daughters who had worked in Central America, I was distressed upon hearing of Lori's arrest. I contacted her parents, to lend my support, and a friendship ensued.)

It is not possible for Lori Berenson to have a fair trial in Peru under present conditions. Many high-ranking Peruvian government officials have already declared that Lori is guilty. In fact, Peruvian President Fujimori has stated that Lori will be found guilty in this second trial, and will receive a sentence of 20 years to life imprisonment! There is no real justice for anyone in Peru today. The U.S. State Department s 1999 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Peru contains a scathing review of the Peruvian judicial system. The State Department recognizes that Peru s judiciary shows a consistent pattern of contempt for democratic principles and human rights. The United Nations High Commission on Human Rights has condemned the Peruvian government for Ms. Berenson s wrongful imprisonment. (Peru has continually ignored the High Commission s recommendations.) The Inter-American Human Rights Court of the Organization for American States found that Peru s military tribunals had failed to provide human rights and democratic principles.

Not only has Lori Berenson s imprisonment been unjust, but it also has been incredibly brutal. For most of her imprisonment, she has been kept in solitary confinement, in a cell with no light, no appropriate toilet facilities, and no heat. A young American woman locked away in a freezing jail at a high altitude is a bad enough scenario. The scenario is truly a nightmare when we realize that this young woman has been kept under these conditions, without cause, for almost five years!

As a physician, I have been privileged to advise and assist the Berensons in regard to their daughter s health problems during this 57-month ordeal. Naturally, I cannot discuss any specific aspects of Lori Berenson s medical condition. However, to quote Mark and Rhoda Berenson, "Her health is impaired, permanently we fear." Obviously, every day that Lori Berenson remains in prison in Peru makes it even less likely that she will fully recover her health. Despite this, the Peruvian government wants to force Lori to again stand trial for something they know she did not do.

President Clinton has expressed concern about Lori s imprisonment, but in my opinion he has not taken the leadership role that we expect from our Chief Executive. U.S. law (Title 22 U.S.C. Section 1732) directs the President to take all necessary steps short of going to war to secure the release of an incarcerated American citizen if this incarceration appears to be wrongful. President Clinton s failure to intervene forcefully on Lori Berenson s behalf sends the message that the United States will not act when its citizens are wrongfully imprisoned in foreign countries. Is this the message we want to send to the rest of the world?

In this Congressional session, 293 members of the U.S. Congress 43 Senators and 250 members of the House of Representatives have signed a bipartisan letter calling on President Clinton to do everything in his power to seek Lori Berenson s immediate release. (Representative Louise Slaughter, along with both New York Senators, signed this letter. Unfortunately, Representatives Amo Houghton, John LaFalce, and Tom Reynolds refused to sign.)

It has become clear to me, as a concerned U.S. citizen and as a friend of the Berensons, that ordinary citizens must demand that our government bring Lori Berenson home. Clearly, another unfair trial would constitute double jeopardy, and would further violate Lori Berenson s fundamental human rights. I urge everyone to call the White House hotline at 202-456-1111. Demand that President Clinton act now to bring Lori home. (The President s e-mail address is Also, call your Representative (202-225-3121) and ask him/her to pressure President Clinton to help Lori Berenson. We must act now!

For more information contact the Committee to Free Lori Berenson, 110 Maryland Ave NE #102, Washington DC 20002, 202-548-8480,

Matlin is a pediatrician. He lives in Geneseo.