Lori Berenson's Sentence

New York Times -- 23 June 2001

Lori Berenson was convicted on Wednesday and sentenced to 20 years in prison, minus time served, by a three-judge civilian court in Lima for her involvement with Peru's Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement in the mid-1990's. Although the evidence suggests she may indeed have aided the violent Marxist guerrilla group, the sentence is unduly harsh in light of her marginal role in the conspiracy and the case's tainted and tortuous history. Ms. Berenson, a native New Yorker, has already been imprisoned under harsh conditions for more than five years, and her case was manipulated by the corrupt Fujimori regime. President-elect Alejandro Toledo and the Supreme Court should acknowledge this history, and end her prison ordeal.

Ms. Berenson's civilian trial was fairer, to be sure, than the 1996 sham proceeding in a military antiterrorist court that convicted her of treason and sentenced her to life in prison. In that trial Ms. Berenson's lawyers were not even allowed to examine the prosecution's evidence or cross-examine witnesses. But the civilian trial, undertaken after her military conviction was overturned, still relied on evidence gathered in the first, tainted process.

At her civilian trial, Ms. Berenson faced lesser charges of collaborating with the guerrillas. Though no longer accused of being a leader of the Túpac Amaru group, she was accused of knowingly renting a house to serve as a headquarters for a thwarted assault on the Peruvian Congress and of posing as a journalist to obtain information on the layout and workings of the legislative chamber. She says she is innocent. But even if she were not, Wednesday's harsh sentence, validating a tainted prosecution, offends basic notions of justice.

The Supreme Court, which will hear Ms. Berenson's appeal, should consider reducing her sentence to time served. Alternatively, Mr. Toledo, who is to assume the presidency next month, could exercise his clemency power to attain justice. Both should apply the same principle of due process and proportionate penalties to all similarly situated Peruvian prisoners. This is not about special treatment for an American, but a fresh start for Peruvian justice.