Editorial: Free Lori Berenson

The Riverdale Press -- 14 March 2002

In photographs, especially those in which she's wearing glasses, the young woman has an owlish look. "Take me seriously," the pictures say. Unfortunately, when she set off to change to change the world with a laptop, a cell phone, a beeper and a guitar, someone did.

Born on Irwin Avenue in Kingsbridge 32 years ago, Lori Berenson has marked her last six birthdays in Peruvian prisons, including a hellhole high in the Andes where for months she shivered in confinement so solitary she was not permitted to hear a human voice.

Last Sunday, Ms. Berenson's father came to Riverdale to plead for help in freeing her. Speaking at the Ethical Cultural Society, Mark Berenson repeated his daughter's denial that she had joined with members of Peru's guerrilla movement in a violent plot against the government. He acknowledged, however, a fear that his daughter's fate might now be entangled in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. In a recent Op-ed piece in The Washington Post, America's former ambassador to Peru compared her to John Walker Lindh.

With her court appeals exhausted, Ms. Berenson's last, best hope lies with President George Bush, who will meet with Peru's president this month. The question is whether Mr. Bush, who a year ago seemed sympathetic to a pardon or commutation of Ms. Berenson's sentence, will view her case the same way now, and whether Peru will insist that it has the same unilateral right as the United States to deal with those it deems terrorists.

"No event of September 11, which changed the world, should change his mind one iota," said Mr. Berenson of Mr. Bush. But in a poignant moment he also remarked sadly that he, and even his young daughter, might be dead before her innocence was fully established.

Drawn from MIT to Central America by her interest in anthropology, Ms. Berenson recoiled in horror at the social and economic inequaties she found there. She left college in 1990 to work with an organization seeking to help refugees from El Salvador, a country bleeding from a civil war made longer and more brutal by our nation's support for the ruling oligarchy.

In 1994, she traveled to Peru. She obtained press credentials to write for two small, left-leaning magazines and rented an apartment in Lima. There she made the acquaintance of a number of urban guerrillas, although she says she did not know of their affiliation with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. The government of Alberto Fujimori charged her with secreting weapons in her apartment building and using her press credentials to help further a plot to seize the Peruvian Congress. It tried her as a terrorist before a military tribunal of hooded judges convened in secret proceedings.

The tribunal condemned her to life in prison. After an international outcry against a conviction in which she was not permitted to see the evidence against her or to confront witnesses, and following the spectacular collapse of the corrupt Fujimori regime, she was tried anew in a civilian court. It overturned the tribunal's ruling that she was a Tupac Amaru member, but concluded that she had collaborated with the organization and resentenced her to 20 years.

On Sunday, Mr. Berenson read his daughter's long statement to the court before it rendered its verdict. It was as solemn as her photograph. In it, she denied unequivocally that she had participated in violent plots. But she also lectured her judges about poverty and injustice in Peru and around the world. "It is inhumane, it is unfair, and it is completely immoral," she declared, adding, "I believe that when things are wrong, one should say they are wrong. One should speak when faced with injustice."

Her words, Mr. Berenson said, made him proud. That the court did not share his enthusiam is not surprising.

In 1996, Rep. Eliot Engel joined colleagues in Congress to condemn the human rights violations that attended Ms. Berenson's trial. Two years ago, he signed a letter asking President Clinton to seek Ms. Berenson's release, noting that her trial and treatment had violated civilized norms and had undermined her health.

As President Bush prepares for his March 23 meeting with President Alejandro Toledo, it is time for Congress to renew its call for a presidential plea on Ms. Berenson's behalf. Mr. Bush should seek Ms. Berenson's release on humanitarian grounds. Lori Berenson stands convicted of being young, ardent and unbending. For that, she has surely been punished enough.