Feeding Hungry Leads to Peru Jail

The Atlanta Journal Constitution -- 5 July 2001

by Michael Mears

Michael Mears is the former mayor of Decatur, and director of the Multi-County Public Defender's Office in Atlanta.

Lori Berenson was recently convicted of collaboration with the Peruvian Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). It was her second trial. Her first conviction was overturned after intense pressure from international human rights organizations. This second trial was little more than a "show trial" conducted by a Peruvian judge who had already declared that Lori was guilty.

Lori went to Peru in November 1994 and traveled throughout the country learning about the culture and meeting many poor Peruvians (not difficult to find in a country that has had poverty rates above 50 percent). In April 1992, Peru had witnessed a "self-coup" and political upheaval as President Alberto Fujimori attempted to bring peace and order to the chaotic nation with strong leadership and repressive anti-terrorism laws. Lori secured the appropriate press credentials and at the time of her arrest, she was researching articles about the effects of poverty on women in Peru.

Despite the fact that this second trial was a farce insofar as legal protections are concerned, everyone seems to be accepting the fact that another idealistic child of America will spend the better part of her adult life in a dungeon in Peru. No one seems to really care much. Conspicuously absent have been the voices of protest from the United States government and the voices of Trujillo, Decatur's sister city in Peru.

U.S. offers only silence

Berenson has been sentenced to 20 years in a maximum security prison with no parole. The newly elected president of Peru, Alejandro Toledo, has put the United States on notice that he will not intervene in the Peruvian court's decision. Lori's only hope now is that intervention by the United States will secure her release, but that is not anticipated.

Despite the oppressive and utterly vile manner in which her second trial was conducted, Berenson never bowed, never bent and never broke. She has displayed a courage that is remarkable in this day and time. She certainly should be an inspiration to anyone who values human rights and basic human dignity. She has stood toe-to-toe with the despots and fascists who have been prosecuting her, and she has not blinked. Her courage and her tenacity have been inspirational to many and certainly perplexing to the Peruvian prosecutors.

Lori Berenson has now become one of the thousands of people throughout Latin America who are being imprisoned because of their desire to feed the hungry. Lori is paying dearly for her beliefs and dreams. Without the Lori Berensons of this world, where would we be?

Stranded in a dark cell

The late Archbishop Dom Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil, once noted that "when I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, I am called a Communist." Lori Berenson dared to ask why the politicians in Peru were getting rich and the poor were going hungry. For that great sin, she has spent the last five years in a dungeon. As a result of her outrage at the despotism in Peru, she will spend another 15 years in a dark prison cell in the Andes Mountains.

Efforts will continue to free Berenson from her unjust imprisonment. Berenson represents all the hopes and dreams of a generation of Americans. Where are those people today? To ignore the injustice that has happened to her is nothing more than a renunciation of those dreams. The battles which began in the 60s and 70s for equality and justice are not over, but it appears that the warriors of that era have grown old and complacent and the new generation's warriors are more interested in saving the spotted owls than in saving the poor and hungry of the world.

In 1966, Robert Kennedy, in a speech in South Africa said, "Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others . . . he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Berenson will prevail, and the walls of injustice in Peru and in other nations will one day be swept away.