An innocent voice from Peru

Mennonite Weekly Review (Newton, Kansas) -- 9 December 2002

by Kathleen Kern

In 1995, 25-year-old Lori Berenson went to Peru to research the effects of poverty on Peruvian women for Modern Times and Third World Viewpoint. She was obtaining press credentials in Lima when Peruvian authorities arrested her, charging her with treason and collaboration with the leadership of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA.

Although she proclaimed her innocence, in 1995 a secret military tribunal, presided over by men in hoods, sentenced her to life in prison while a soldier, also hooded, held a gun to her head.

In 1999, the Organization of American States' Inter-American Commission for Human Rights ruled that Berenson's case was admissible for full hearing, which prompted Peru to withdraw from this judicial body.

The Supreme Council of Military Justice in Peru reviewed her case in August 2000, ruled that the state lacked evidence to support the charges against her, and nullified the verdict. However, the council then remanded her to Peru's Special Civilian Court for Terrorism. In June 2001, this court declared that while Berenson was not a member of the MRTA and had not participated in any violent act, she had collaborated with the MRTA. She was sentenced to 20 years in jail.

Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights both recognize Berenson as a political prisoner because: 1) She was tried twice on the same charges; 2) The Peruvian judicial system and press declared her guilty before her trial; 3) Unsubstantiated and coerced evidence was used to convict her; and 4) She was denied due process by an impartial tribunal and the right to an adequate defense.

Almost anyone who has served with Mennonite Central Committee, Christian Peacemaker Teams or other organizations that work with the oppressed meets people who think those who persecute the poor will stop doing so only if threatened with violence.

Many of us choose to work in these situations as a way of advocating for the poor in nonviolent ways, so people will not think they have to resort to armed resistance.

We struggle to maintain our belief in nonviolence when we speak with compassionate militants who have watched people in power treat the poor with contempt, robbing them of their land, resources and human dignity. We feel some sympathy for the desire of these militants to act, though we know that victories won through violence, even for a just cause, always lead to more violence. Violent liberation movements almost always become corrupt when they achieve power. They violate human rights just as the systems they replace did.

But contact with guerrilla movements is not the same as collaboration. Sympathy for the goals of justice and equitable distribution of wealth is not the same as abetting violence.

Berenson has served seven years in Peruvian jails, under conditions that violate all international treaties on human rights, because she sympathized with the poor.

Members of Congress and President Bush have advocated for Berenson's release. But I wonder what the response of the U.S. government and the U.S. media would have been had she been working in Cuba and jailed because she sympathized with anti-Castro factions.

I also wonder how much worse her situation could have been had she not had parents with the resources to campaign full-time for her release.

And I wonder about the anonymous Peruvian political prisoners who, like Berenson, are in jail because they cared about the destitute and powerless and have no one to advocate on their behalf.

More information on Berenson can be found at