Jesse Jackson Confronts Leader of Peru Over Prisoner's Case

The New York Times -- 9 September 2000

by Anthony DePalma

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said yesterday that he intended to go to Peru to meet with Lori Berenson, a New Yorker who has been imprisoned on charges of treason for more than five years, and to negotiate with the Peruvian authorities for her release.

Ms. Berenson's life sentence for treason and terrorism, handed down in a military court there, was overturned last month. A new trial in civilian court is planned.

Mr. Jackson made what he called a mercy plea for Ms. Berenson's release in front of a surprised President Alberto Fujimori of Peru at a Midtown Manhattan luncheon, at which Mr. Fujimori tried to review his nation's economic and social progress before a gathering of New York investors and bankers.

Mr. Jackson called on Mr. Fujimori, who stood stone-faced on the podium, to consider the years that Ms. Berenson has already spent in prison as time served and to release her immediately. He told Mr. Fujimori that doing so "would be a smart thing to do," and that it would represent "no threat to your sovereignty."

Mr. Fujimori said that the judicial branch of the government would handle the trial, "not the executive."

Then he left open the possibility of a visit by Mr. Jackson. "Of course we are always willing to dialogue," Mr. Fujimori said, adding that the discussions could continue when Mr. Jackson was in Peru.

Mark L. Berenson, the imprisoned woman's father, said in a telephone interview that he had met Mr. Jackson last week in Chicago after appearing on the Oprah Winfrey program to talk about the new trial.

"It's uplifting to us and to many Americans who have seen how Reverend Jackson has worked for the release of prisoners in Liberia, Kosovo, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Iraq," he said. "We're pleased that in the name of humanity, justice and dignity he's doing the same now."

Mr. Jackson has spoken publicly about Ms. Berenson's case several times since meeting Mr. Berenson in Chicago. But during the confrontation with Mr. Fujimori yesterday, at the St. Regis Hotel, Mr. Jackson made it clear for the first time that he planned to intervene directly.

It was unusual for Mr. Jackson to put a foreign leader on the spot so publicly. He said later that he wanted to link the issues of human rights with the kind of economic performance that Mr. Fujimori had been so eager to discuss at the event.

"Economic growth without human rights is like a bucket with a hole in it," Mr. Jackson said. All of Mr. Fujimori's attempts to bring attention to any improvements in his country's economic or social situation will be ignored, he said, until Ms. Berenson is released.

"You can't hear any of what he's saying as long as Lori's in jail," Mr. Jackson said.