Justice denied? Berenson case questioned

Adelante -- May 2001

by Miguel Ugarte

Miguel Ugarte is a professor of Spanish Literature at the University of Missouri.

The cause celebre of Lori Berenson has been the object of diverse opinions in the Peruvian press. But while few North Americans pay much attention to her with the exception of her parents and activists dedicated to her defense, we citizens of the 'nation of liberty' should be more interested than we are.

An MIT anthropology student, Berenson traveled to Central America in the eighties with a group of people interested in the political and economic difficulties faced by peasants and indigenous peoples. There she worked with CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador), an organization the author of this essay has contributed to on more than one occasion. In 1994, she began working as a journalist, having become interested, to her misfortune, in the political realities of Peru. There she was arrested in 1995 for acts of 'treason against the fatherland' -- which fatherland is not clear -- and for alleged activities related to the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, one of many armed insurgent groups in Peru. This one had its culminating moment when in 1996-97 it occupied the Japanese embassy in Lima. After three months of negotiation and non-negotiation, the then-president's response was unequivocal -- if one could call Fujimori 'president.' Not a single revolutionary remained alive -- a great triumph against barbarism for the president/dictator. However, after last summer's elections, the subsequent resignation of Fujimori, and the scandalous abuse of human rights by Vladimoro Montesinos (a high government official specializing in espionage and torture), we need to ask just who the terrorist barbarians really are.

Indeed, there has been little interest on the part of the Peruvian government and much less its armed forces in complying with international laws concerning human rights, liberties that Lori Berenson had addressed in her writing. Moreover, according to some journalists, her trial indicates that Peruvian laws concerning civil liberties have also been violated.

For those of us aware of the political and social realities of Spanish-speaking countries like Peru in the age of neo-liberalism, the idea that Lori Berenson could possibly be tried impartially is ingenuous if not absurd. The circumstances of the arrest and the military process of her first 'trial' tell us that there are too many contradictions, and more importantly, too many interests at stake for the truth of the case to come to the fore.

Today, the star witness for the prosecution is Pacífico Castrellón, a man who has also been accused of terrorist activities and sentenced to thirty years in prison. According to Castrellón, Berenson had rented an apartment with him in the nineties that was used as an organizing base for a plan to kidnap members of the Peruvian congress. The fact is that Castrellón has already received a promise of a new trial in exchange for his testimony. In addition, Miguel Rincón, a leader of MRTA, offered testimony that contradicted Castrellón's version of Berenson's activities in Peru.

The truth? Elusive as usual, keeping all the conflicting interests in mind, not the least of which is the maintenance of power. It is most likely that the truth of Berenson's case will not be discovered until well after this trial is adjudicated.

Certainly, the sovereignty of Peru must be considered, as have affirmed many Peruvian writers and citizens, some of whom are skeptical about the democratic nature of that country's institutions. Berenson's case, they say, should be determined without the pressure of foreign interests or pressure groups. It's understandable: How would U.S. politicians respond, for example, to the objections of a no-death-penalty country whose citizen has been sentenced to die for a crime committed in the United States?

Also, we should keep in mind one of the most gripping realities of Berenson's case, a reality pointed out by her parents repeatedly: that their daughter is not the only person unjustly condemned to Peruvian jails for activities, the truth of which no one has proved.

I admit, though, that like Lori Berenson, I am a U.S. citizen, and I too am prone to nationalist sentiments. Perhaps this is why her case is so disturbing to me: she's an American. I have known many U.S. women activists who have bounded into the South to expurgate the world of poverty. Careful, I warn; the Montesinos of the world are watching.