Exclusive: Jail House Interview with Lori Berenson

Newsweek -- 23 June 2001

In a secret meeting with a NEWSWEEK reporter, the New Yorker discussed her most recent conviction in a Peruvian court.

Lori Berenson was convicted last week in a Peruvian court of collaborating with leftist guerrillas in the mid-1990s and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Her case attracted international attention after the Clinton Administration objected to her original trial by a secret military tribunal in 1996. That court sentenced the New Yorker to life in prison for her involvement with the Marxist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).

Throughout the three-month-long trial, Berenson steadfastly maintained her innocence. But a three-judge civilian court concluded that she had knowingly plotted with MRTA guerrillas to kidnap members of the Peruvian Congress in order to secure the release of jailed rebels. An attorney for the 31-year-old New Yorker said he would appeal her conviction to the Peruvian Supreme Court. Berenson's parents said they would petition Peruvian President-elect Alejandro Toledo for a pardon after he takes office at the end of July. Berenson granted an interview to NEWSWEEK's Rachel Hays on Saturday at a prison for female inmates in the Lima suburb of Chorillos. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Do you consider yourself a heroine or a victim? Lori Berenson: I'm as much of a heroine or victim as several thousand Peruvians in jail or with arrest warrants.

How will you continue the fight for social justice from inside prison? By not backing down on what I believe. Although what I can do is limited, by not cowering to the system of injustice I continue to be a headache to those who promote injustice.

Many Peruvians agree with the guilty verdict and seem to have a negative image of you. I think that Peruvian public opinion has a distorted image of me and a distorted image of what happened over the last 10, 12 or 15 years, because of the propaganda machine that fed images and false ideas. I'm saddened, deeply saddened they have that distorted image of me.

Would you accept a transfer to the United States to serve out your sentence? I have committed no crime, thus accepting an offer to serve a sentence in the United States would be an acceptance of guilt.

In your public statements, you have always said you are 'innocent of the charges' against you, rather than simply 'innocent.' Is there a reason for the distinction? Is there something you're guilty of? I'm [guilty of disagreeing with] the beliefs or ideas of many. Beliefs, principles or ideas are not punishable, they should not be punishable, although I have been punished once again for sticking to my principles, not cowering to injustice, not accepting a guilt that's not mine, for not pointing out others, for not condemning others.