Injustice to Berenson

Boston Globe -- 23 March 2001


Although it makes possible her exoneration, the retrial in a Peruvian civilian court of former MIT student Lori Berenson on charges of ''terrorist collaboration'' flouts the principle that a defendant should not be subject to double jeopardy. The second trial also suggests that despite the fall of President Alberto Fujimori and his corrupt spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos, Peru remains a sham democracy.

Originally, Berenson was convicted by a secret military tribunal on charges of being a leader of a left-wing militant group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, known in Peru by its Spanish acronym MRTA. That 1996 proceeding was a travesty of justice. Her judges were hooded, she was permitted no true defense, and much of the testimony against her was later changed or recanted.

The workings of both military and civilian courts in Peru were manipulated by Fujimori and Montesinos, whose corrupt dealings have since been documented on video and audio tapes revealed to the public. Even the CIA lost patience with Montesinos, who had been on the agency's payroll until it learned that he turned a tidy profit purchasing weapons from Russia and reselling them at a markup to leftist guerrillas in Colombia. Washington is sending $1.3 billion, much of it in military aid, to a Colombian government fighting those same insurgents.

Now that the crimes perpetrated by Montesinos and Fujimori have been unveiled on the tapes that Montesinos originally made to blackmail his collaborators, it is particularly galling that Berenson has to stand trial again while those two wanted fugitives, who first railroaded her in their military court, are still on the lam, beyond the reach of the law.

Fujimori took unconcealed pride in subjecting a US citizen to his travesty of justice. At the time, he stoked popular indignation with his absurd pretense that Berenson was a leader of the Tupac Amaru group and was guilty of treason to Peru. The violent and theatrical tactics of the leftist guerrillas had alienated much of the population. Fujimori's ploy of focusing popular resentment on the romantic revolutionary from North America succeeded as a polished piece of demagoguery.

In the five years since Berenson was imprisoned under unimaginably harsh conditions, her health has suffered and the country outside her prison walls has changed considerably. She has paid a high price for any involvement she might have had with the Tupac Amaru. In the meantime, by nullifying the original military verdict and remanding her to a civilian court, Peruvian authorities have acknowledged that she was unfairly convicted and incarcerated in the first trial.

Nevertheless, she is once again being tried under Fujimori's flagrantly distorted antiterrorism laws. If she is not freed to return home, the United States should treat Peru as a pariah state.