Parents of U.S. woman jailed in Peru see hope in Bush visit

CNN -- 22 March 2002

(CNN) -- President Bush is traveling to Lima, Peru, where a blast at the U.S. Embassy killed nine people. But a U.S. couple whose daughter, Lori Berenson, is in jail in Peru hopes that the president's journey will call attention to her situation as well. Friday morning Rhoda and Mark Berenson talked to CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield.

WHITFIELD: President Bush is scheduled to arrive in Lima, Peru, on Saturday, following a deadly car bombing near the U.S. Embassy there. The blast killed at least nine people (Wednesday night). And while it did not deter the president, who said he will still make the stop, it will undoubtedly cloud an issue that is very important to our next guests. The parents of Lori Berenson are hoping the president, in addition to focusing on trade issues and the drug war, will turn his attention to their daughter.

Lori Berenson has been in jail in Peru since 1995 on terrorism charges. Last month, the country's supreme court upheld her 20-year sentence for aiding Peruvian rebels in a 1995 plot to overthrow Peru's congress. Lori's parents Rhoda and Mark are joining us now.

And we'd like to make a correction right off the top that just before the break it was stated that Lori's conviction and sentence is connected to a group associated with the recent car bombing -- not true?

RHODA BERENSON: No, not true.

WHITFIELD: OK. You most recently spoke with Lori, and how is she doing right now?

MARK BERENSON: Lori is fine. We spoke with here yesterday, and she felt awful about the horrendous loss of life and the senseless violence that occurred in Lima. She said that prisoners there say that they have nothing to do with that. Today, Bishop Bambaren, the head of the Catholic Church, said he does not believe that any subversive group did this, which leads us to think that it was enemies of the current government to do this.

WHITFIELD: This is an obvious distraction for the Bush administration in that region, but the president says in no way will this terrorist act deter his mission. Yet, at the same time, it seems like it might be a little bit more difficult for you to get his attention ... toward meeting with the president there on Lori Berenson's case.

M. BERENSON: It shouldn't.

R. BERENSON: Well the president -- both presidents met last July. And at that point, President Bush told Peruvian President Toledo that once Lori's appeal is over, he would hope that President Toledo would find a humanitarian solution to Lori's problem. And nothing has changed. We think both men understand justice, understand compassion

Lori Berenson had nothing to do with this. Lori Berenson is innocent, has suffered six -- six years, four months and whatever number of days...

M. BERENSON: Two thousand three-hundred and five.

R. BERENSON: Under horrendous conditions, in horrible prisons. She is innocent. I think President Bush understands that and we believe that maybe not publicly, but privately, this will be discussed.

WHITFIELD: How much does it concern you that as it is now, Lori Berenson and those talks are not stated on his agenda?

M. BERENSON: Well, public agenda differs from a private agenda. And we didn't expect this issue to be a public issue because of the kind of problem it is. But, certainly, we believe and expect that President Bush and President Toledo will address a wrong. Justice must be served always, and Lori has been denied justice now for over six years.

You have photos there. She testified for over 26 hours on behalf of herself over a three-month period, and no evidence was presented and no testimony given that would have warranted a conviction. It's the laws in Peru which allowed for this to happen, and those laws need to be changed. The trial is just lacking in fairness and due process.

WHITFIELD: If dialogue does take place between the two presidents, what are you hoping specifically will be addressed? What can President Bush do for Lori's case for you as parents to convey to President Toledo?

M. BERENSON: Well they know that she's not a terrorist. Both presidents know that. President Bush would never have asked for Lori's humanitarian resolution last June if he thought anything bad about Lori. And President Toledo met with us. And what they should just figure out is how can they, in the name of justice, go out and tell the people of that country this is not a person who is a terrorist.

All of the religious leaders who have visited Lori -- and there has been over a dozen of all faiths -- have said she's a remarkable individual, a woman of principle and conviction. Some have said she's a prophet, others have put her in the league of a Martin Luther King and a Gandhi. And I don't, as a parent, say that. But Lori is a tremendously unique individual. She never has concern about herself, only about others. So selfless is her attitude on a global humanity wanting peace and justice and love of everybody.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks very much, Mark and Rhoda Berenson for joining us this morning.