Free Lori Berenson

New York Times -- 22 September 2000

Lori Berenson, the American serving a life sentence in Peru for treason, has always been at the mercy of Peru's stormy politics. President Alberto Fujimori has repeatedly used her case to prove he is tough on terrorism and to paint his opponents as squishy. The current turmoil in Peru now threatens to prolong Ms. Berenson's imprisonment. Last month Peru's highest military court no doubt directed by a president eager to improve relations with Washington granted her a new trial on a lesser charge. The court acknowledged that Ms. Berenson was not a guerrilla leader, the original justification used in charging her with treason.

But Mr. Fujimori's political calculus is now altered by his surprise plan to hold new elections and not be a candidate himself. Ms. Berenson, who has been in prison for nearly five years in very harsh conditions, should simply be released.

Ms. Berenson may well have had some involvement with the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, which sought to overthrow the government. If so, her activities were certainly marginal. Her trial was profoundly unfair like those of thousands of others convicted in Mr. Fujimori's special anti- terrorism courts. Her lawyers were unable to see the evidence against her, cross-examine witnesses or present evidence in her favor. The miscarriage of justice was so egregious that Mr. Fujimori was forced to set up a panel to review the convictions. More than 1,000 of the wrongly convicted were freed by this panel and the courts. But hundreds more people believed to be innocent are still in prison, and the panel has shut down.

Ms. Berenson's family says that in her new trial, her lawyers have not seen the file of charges and testimony, and were not present when witnesses were questioned. Rather than extending the charade, Mr. Fujimori should let her go.