Berenson's Parents Maintain Optimism

The Jewish Week -- 29 June 2001

by Eric J. Greenberg

Lori Berenson's parents this week remained upbeat about winning a pardon for their jailed daughter, despite media reports that Peru's president-elect would not intervene in the case.

Mark Berenson told The Jewish Week Tuesday that the quote by Alejandro Toledo saying he would not interfere with the civil court conviction of Berenson was misinterpreted, and he was not ruling out the option of a presidential pardon or executive clemency.

"We're optimistic," Berenson said. "We hope he will examine the records and come to a fair decision."

Toledo was visiting the U.S. this week seeking American aid following last week's devastating earthquake in Peru.

Mark Berenson confirmed that he and his wife, Rhoda, met with Toledo in Lima within the last few months, and praised the incoming president as a thoughtful, decent man whom he hoped "will be able to reduce the horrendous poverty affecting Peru's poor."

Meanwhile, Rhoda Berenson compared her daughter's 91-day trial in Lima to the Spanish Inquisition.

"The idea was for her to confess, to repent, and to point out others who were guilty," she said.

But, Rhoda Berenson continued, her 31-year-old daughter, sentenced last week to 20 years in jail for collaborating with terrorists, was not going to give up or give in.

"She cannot confess to something she did not do," Rhoda insisted. "She is at peace with herself."

The Berensons arrived back home to New York Monday after a three-month stay in the Peruvian capital to support their daughter during an unprecedented terrorism trial.

Lori Berenson was convicted last week for allegedly helping the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement plot a thwarted takeover of Peru's Congress in 1995. She was acquitted of being a member of the revolutionary group.

Lori was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but is scheduled to be released in 2015 because she already has served more than five years in a maximum-security prison.

Despite the conviction, Lori's parents and lawyers called for acting President Valentine Paniagua or Toledo to pardon Lori. Toledo will be sworn in July 28. The Berensons have also appealed the case to the Peruvian Supreme Court.

They called the trial a "total sham."

"This trial was open but it was not fair," Mark Berenson declared, referring to a 1996 military trial in which his daughter was convicted of treason by hooded military judges and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Berensons and their lawyers, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and Tom Nooter, accused the judges of discriminating against Lori's Peruvian attorney, berating Lori during the proceedings and inappropriately associating with the prosecutors.

"During the coffee breaks, the judges and prosecutors would hug each other," Mark Berenson claimed. "We have the films."

Mark Berenson also confirmed that he received a letter in January from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"He told us how concerned he is and that he was monitoring the case," Mark said.

Besides holding rallies this week, the Berensons were going to Washington to lobby for support from Congress and the Bush administration.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) said she was circulating a letter in Congress calling on Paniagua to pardon Berenson, "so that when Dr. Alejandro Toledo takes office on July 28, his newly elected government can begin its work free of the taint of Lori Berenson's conviction."

Clark said that in all his years as a human rights advocate, he had never witnessed such a prejudiced trial.

"It was never intended she would have a fair trial," Clark said. "I've seen trials all over the world and this was a show trial of the most extraordinary type. They do not have a single shred of evidence in the record. Not one."

California Rabbi Steven Jacobs, who sat with the Berensons during the verdict, said he intends to put together a delegation of rabbis to meet with Toledo, whose wife and daughter are Jewish.

Rabbi Jacobs, of Kol Tikva in Woodland Hills, said Lori was promoting the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, by trying to help Peru's poor.

"I think there is a great Jewish aspect to this case: Every single rabbi talks about tikkun olam," he said. "Here is where we have to take a stand, when our kids go out and try to turn around the wrongs of the world.

"She's acting them out and she's defined as a terrorist. Give me a break. If she's a terrorist, then I'm a terrorist," said Rabbi Jacobs, who was part of an interfaith delegation that helped win the release of three captured U.S. soldiers in Yugoslavia.

The Berenson case has evoked mixed reactions in the media.

In an editorial Saturday, The New York Times said: "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 torturous history."

The Times also noted that Berenson, a native New Yorker, has been imprisoned under harsh conditions for more than five years and "her case was manipulated by the corrupt regime" of fugitive ex-President Alberto Fujimori.

"The Supreme Court ... should consider reducing her sentence to time served," the Times wrote.

Toledo "could exercise his clemency power to attain justice."

However, an editorial in the more politically conservative New York Post hailed the conviction.

"The sentence ... should serve as a powerful lesson: If you aid terrorists, the governments they target are not likely to look upon you favorably.

"Maybe [Lori Berenson] should have recognized the difference between the U.S. justice system and Peru's before she decided to consort with terrorists," the Post wrote.