Justice denied: American in Peruvian prison loses again

The Columbus Dispatch -- Editorial -- 27 June 2001

Once again, American Lori Berenson has been found guilty in a Peruvian court of crimes against the government of Peru. And, once again, the trial in which she was convicted was, at best, tainted.

Berenson, a writer and social activist from New York City, was sentenced last week to 20 years in prison for collaborating with leftist guerrillas who were plotting to seize the Peruvian Congress. This is a crime that should be taken seriously. Unfortunately, getting a fair trial under Peru's much-criticized anti-terrorism laws is impossible for anyone.

Berenson's first trial was a sham. Hooded judges in a military court handed down a life sentence after hearing testimony from witnesses who had been tortured and abused. Berenson's lawyers were not allowed to cross-examine government witnesses.

The anti-terrorism laws she was convicted under, which were put in place by former President Alberto Fujimori, now in hiding over corruption charges, have been widely condemned by the United States and by human-rights groups for sending thousands of Peruvians to prison on scant evidence.

The second trial, though conducted in a civilian court before a panel of three magistrates, was an improvement, but not by much: The government's case relied on the same tainted evidence collected for the first trial, and the prosecutors were the same ones appointed by Fujimori for the first trial.

Incredibly, The Boston Globe reported, Berenson's lawyer played a videotape from January 1998 that showed former Peruvian intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos saying he would have Berenson's original conviction overturned and then have her retried to placate the United States and world opinion. Montesinos, who was on the lam because of corruption charges but now has been arrested and returned to face his nation's justice system, said he could have Berenson convicted again and sentenced to 10 or 15 years.

With credit for time served, Berenson has 15 years left on her 20- year sentence. Coincidence? Who knows? But it sure smells bad when you consider that Fujimori and Montesinos were still in power when Berenson was granted the new trial.

The Dispatch is not saying Berenson is innocent. But the justice system in Peru has never given her a fair shake. Berenson has served five years; three of those were spent at the Yanamayo prison, a maximum- security prison 12,000 feet up in the frigid Andes mountains, in an unheated cell with open windows. Certainly, such inhumane treatment is sufficient punishment for the small role Berenson is accused of playing in the anti- government plot. With Fujimori gone, Peru needs to demonstrate to the world that the tide is turning. It must overhaul its draconian anti-terrorist laws. And it must make sure all who had been convicted under those laws, including Berenson, are dealt with fairly.

Peru's Supreme Court, which will hear Berenson's appeal, should reduce her sentence to time served. Failing that, President- elect Alejandro Toledo, who takes office July 28, should reconsider his decision not to pardon her.

This messy ordeal has dragged on too long. Peru should embrace justice.