Whirlwind sweeps parents of U.S. prisoner in Peru

Reuters -- 16 January 2001

NEW YORK -- It seems as if the whirlwind has never stopped for Mark and Rhoda Berenson since the day five years ago when a hooded Peruvian military judge sentenced their daughter to life in prison on charges she led a guerrilla group.

Lori Berenson's sentencing in mid-January 1996 threw the lives of her parents, academics from Manhattan, into turmoil and set them on an unimaginable quest to free their daughter.

They spoke in early August at the White House with Hillary Rodham Clinton, who told them she would do whatever she could to bring their daughter home, and they met repeatedly last summer with National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, who expressed his determination to secure her release and said he would love to be aboard the plane returning her, they say.

In a potential breakthrough in August, Peru's top military justice council lifted Berenson's life sentence, citing a lack of evidence to back her conviction as a guerrilla leader. It sent the case to a civilian court and a prosecutor said evidence supported the view she was at least a member or collaborator of the rebels, crimes punishable by at least 20 years in prison.

With her retrial in the early stages, Peru's new justice minister has eased rules, helping her prepare her defense. And her parents continue to lobby intensively for her release.

During their tortuous five-year campaign, they pounded the halls of Congress, convincing 221 members of the House and 40 senators to sign petitions for the humanitarian release of their daughter on grounds of her failing health. The petitions, sent in late July to President Bill Clinton, also cited violations of international law in the military trial that convicted her of being a Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) leader.

In Peru, the elder Berensons gasped for air in the Andes, trudging up to 12,700 feet (3,870 meters) above sea level to a jail where Lori was held for three years, plagued by arthritic knees, failing eyesight and bloated, numbed, purplish hands.

Their emotional roller coaster -- with its peaks like the White House meetings and moments of devastation like hearing of the life sentence -- is recounted in Rhoda Berenson's recent book, "Lori: My Daughter, Wrongfully Imprisoned in Peru."

The parents told Reuters in an interview that the civilian trial is in a first stage where the judge decides what charges, if any, to bring. They said their 31-year-old daughter could draw as much as 30 years in prison for alleged association with MRTA members. Or she could be accused of the lesser charge of "apology" for terrorism, with a minimum four-year sentence, meaning she could be freed on time served.

'They are on a fishing expedition'

Stirring their concern is the extended length of the trial, which the presiding judge Romel Borda said on August 29 would be two months, three at the most. Now, 4 1/2 months later, charges have not even been brought for her trial, where she will be able to answer questions publicly and maintain her innocence.

For Mark Berenson, the delay is because "There's no evidence against Lori, they are on a fishing expedition."

Another postponement came unexpectedly when Judge Borda was removed from the case without explanation on January 5. Berenson said his replacement might need time to absorb the details.

Two rabbis who visited Lori separately in October said she had mixed emotions about her prospects for freedom.

"There was hope, there was light, she would have more access to a lawyer," Rabbi Ronald Greenwald said. "But she still was afraid that the system was tough and possibly corrupt and would she get a fair shake?"

Manhattan-based Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein saw her the day after the surprise resignation of President Alberto Fujimori, who in a TV appearance days after her November 30, 1995, arrest waved her passport and linked her to the MRTA. Fujimori led a tough crackdown on MRTA and Shining Path guerrillas in Peru.

"(With him gone), she hoped things would go better for her but had questions because the judicial system would not change in a few days. She was wondering if she would get a fair trial," Bronstein said. But he recalled she said she had to go ahead with it because it was the name of the game.

Peru is now under a transition government through July 28, and the new Justice Minister, Diego Garcia Sayan, is a longtime human rights activist. When Mark Berenson met Garcia Sayan in November, he told him Lori was preparing a petition on behalf of all prisoners complaining that they had little access to their lawyers -- at most one hour a week.

'News to him'

"This was news to him," Berenson said. Shortly after their meeting, the justice ministry revamped rules to allow lawyers four hours daily four times a week with prisoners, giving Lori more time to prepare for the public phase of the trial.

But her parents wish the move had come earlier, saying she was allowed only a brief time with her Peruvian lawyer before 11 hours of closed-door interrogation on three days in September.

For all its limitations, the parents say the civilian trial is an improvement over the 1996 military trial, which human rights group Amnesty International called a "parody of justice." Her lawyer then was barred from speaking to her before and during her testimony, in which she said she was in Peru as a journalist, writing articles for two U.S. magazines.

Under Garcia Sayan, visiting hours for relatives in jails have also been expanded, making the Berensons' usual biweekly visits much more worthwhile. Previously her parents and sister could meet her for only an hour on each trip and she was behind a wire mesh screen. Now female relatives can visit her two full days weekly in a courtyard and men one day.

Amid the uncertainty, one stark truth is that the parents' ordeal to free Lori has wiped away the lives they once had. Both in their 50s, they left tenured teaching posts to lobby full time for her freedom. He was a statistics professor at Baruch College and she taught physics at a community college.

Their finances are strained by the legal campaign's three lawyers, including former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. But on January 7, they said, they saw their first Broadway play in five years. As they left, they saw preparations for a motorcade for President Clinton, a reminder his term ends on January 20.

The Berensons said they hope to reach the new Bush administration through Republican senators who have supported them and have already sent information packets to Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell and incoming National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, but they have yet to get a response.