Lori Berenson: A New Yorker in Prison

New York Observer -- 8 April 2002

by Editorial

Lori Berenson could be the daughter of any well-educated, well-meaning New York City parents. Raised by two college professors, she lived in Manhattan, took violin lessons at age 8, and went on to attend the La Guardia High School of Music and Performing Arts and then the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she became interested in political science, particularly as it related to Latin America. She took time off from college to live in El Salvador and wrote long, colorful letters home describing the people and the culture. In short, she was like many young, idealistic women and men in New York, who have the benefit of supportive parents and an education that allows them to explore their intellectual passions. But as the world knows, Ms. Berenson's passions led her to become entangled in some way with rebels in Peru, which led to her arrest in 1995 and her current sentence of 20 years in a Peruvian prison cell. Even if she was in fact guilty of helping the rebels try to take over that country's Congress, her sentence is far too harsh. She is surely no threat to Peru's future. The U.S. government needs to do more to press for her release.

During his recent trip to Peru, President George Bush didn't bother to ask for clemency for Ms. Berenson, and the Peruvian government has declared the matter closed. But were Ms. Berenson anyone else-say, a conservative 32-year-old American instead of a liberal 32-year-old American-is there any doubt that Mr. Bush would have raised hell to win her release? Why is the President suddenly so shy about waving the American flag?

At the most, Lori Berenson is guilty of terrible misjudgment, of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. She's already suffered for over six years in prison, much of that time in bitterly cold, unheated concrete cells, with inadequate medical treatment and isolation from other prisoners, not to mention her own family.

An international commission is reviewing Ms. Berenson's case, but without strong American backup, it's doubtful the Peruvian government will take action. In the meantime, in the absence of any leadership or compassion from President Bush, New York Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton and Governor George Pataki must apply public pressure to the White House, and do all they can to make sure that a daughter of New York comes home.