Justice and Freedom Continue To Elude Lori Berenson

CommonDreams.org -- 1 May 2002

by Gary Handschumacher

Gary Handschumacher is a coordinating member of the Committee to Free Lori Berenson. He has been actively involved with peace and justice efforts for 35 years and now lives in Western Colorado.

Those of us working with the Committee to Free Lori Berenson had been looking to September 11, 2001, with anticipation. At a breakfast meeting in Lima that morning, Colin Powell was to discuss "a resolution" to Lori's case. The subject was raised, but the meeting was cut short by news of the mass killings in the US. There was no "resolution" and we found ourselves in a time that had no space for us to generate much attention to her struggle.

On December 21, 2001, we were shocked to hear that Peruvian security forces had launched an assault on Lori's cellblock, violently assaulted her and other women, and whisked her away to the Huacariz prison, 360, miles north of Lima. She was allowed a visit by a delegation of religious leaders from the US, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Ms. Shirley Magidson, Rev. Dr. William Nottingham, and Rabbi Joshua Saltzman; who wrote in a report of their visit:

"Two weeks prior to our visit, Ms. Berenson was moved from her Lima prison to another in the city of Cajamarca after security officers in gas masks, without forewarning, and wielding clubs as they burst into her cellblock at 3 AM., discharged teargas and began to terrorize the sleeping prisoners housed in the area. They did this under pretext that they were subduing a potential riot. All of the women were beaten, manhandled, and sexually abused. In the presence of the remaining 16 other women prisoners, Ms. Berenson and Nancy Gilvonio, widow of a guerrilla leader, were then roughly pushed into waiting vehicles, still in their nightclothes and without shoes, to be transported to two different prisons, hundreds of miles from the nation's capitol. When our delegation met with the Justice Minister, he informed us that this type of prison transfer 'was a normal precautionary procedure.' "

The Huacariz prison, near Cajamarca, is at an altitude of 9000 feet. In the past, Lori has had health problems at high elevation prisons. So far, her parents report, she is doing "OK", but winter will come in a few months.

In February Lori joined a hunger strike with hundreds of other prisoners in various prisons across Peru. She passed 25 days with no solid food. At the request of Peruvian church representatives the strike was ended in mid-march. Lori issued a statement that said, in part, "I believe that this protest against the policy of human rights abuses which ex-president Fujimori's government implemented... is a just protest. The fundamental premise of the anti-terrorism legislation continues to be abusive and contrary to Peruvian constitutional principles and international conventions on human rights; and this is to the detriment of thousands of people amongst whom I am included."

Also in February Peru's supreme court, as anticipated, confirmed Lori's 20 year sentence. Jose Luis Sandoval, Lori's lawyer, declared on January 22 before the five judges that she was innocent of all charges and was imprisoned solely for her beliefs. He also argued that during the course of the civilian trial there were numerous violations of due process and that no evidence was presented nor testimony provided by witnesses that would warrant a conviction.

In response to this decision, Lori wrote,'This judicial process was a farce from its beginning to its end. I am innocent of the charges. I was tried under an unconstitutional law that not only violated due process but also served to justify the flagrant violation of human rights of thousands of Peruvians. It is not really a judicial problem; it is fundamentally a political one. The process was even more absurd because of the defamatory propaganda the government has used for years, through direct manipulation of the media, against persons like me, detained in a context of political violence. The judicial system has been run directly by government policy for years, and this has not yet been totally corrected."

A recent report by Human Rights Watch confirms this critique of Peru's justice system. "The Peruvian government has failed to reform the country's draconian and much criticized antiterrorism legislation. Despite strong efforts to restore rule of law trampled on during the ten-year rule of Alberto Fujimori, the government has not yet tackled the sweeping antiterrorism laws that have trapped thousands of Peruvians in a legal nightmare. Laws against terrorism must be revised so as to define precisely the nature of the offences, and make the penalties proportionate to the seriousness of the crime." Human Rights Watch also urged the Peruvian government to order civilian retrials of all prisoners whose basic due process rights were violated under antiterrorism laws. President Toledo stated in early March that the supreme court is still influenced by Fujimori's spymaster, Vladimiro Montesinos, from his cell in Callao Prison. Lori's parents, Mark and Rhoda Berenson, issued the following statement after the decision; "We are not surprised at the decision by the Peruvian Supreme Court and are prepared to continue our efforts to bring Lori home. We remain convinced of Lori's innocence and the decision of the Supreme Court today only indicates that the Peruvian judiciary is still in need of reform. The antiterrorism laws under which Lori was convicted have been universally condemned and need to be changed. Lori is but one of hundreds who remain, wrongfully, in Peru's prisons because of this injustice."

In March, George Bush traveled to Peru to meet with Alejandro Toledo. Though there were mixed reports about what was communicated between the two, the Berenson's stated, " Despite all predictions and statements from Peruvian officials that Lori's case would not be on the agenda when President Bush made his historic visit on Saturday [March 23], Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters that President Bush raised the issue and again, like last June, forcefully expressed his compassionate concerns. Taking time out from this important meeting to discuss Lori's situation was clearly an indication to Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo that Lori's case remains an important issue for the Bush administration and for bilateral relations between the US and Peru. President Bush mentioned to President Toledo that the US governments was awaiting the pending decision of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Now that Lori's appeal to the Peruvian Supreme Court has concluded, the Commission is able to complete its findings and Secretary of State Powell said that 'when they have completed their review and made their decision known, perhaps that may offer an opportunity for President Toledo to examine the whole case and take another look at what might be possible.'

As we await the decision of the commission, we feel we have the support of the US government and believe Lori's rights will be protected by the Commission. It is next scheduled to meet in plenary session in Washington in the fall, but that does not preclude and earlier decision on Lori's case if it should choose to do so."

The National Organization for Women passed a resolution in support of Lori at its annual meeting last fall. NOW resolved that it will "issue a statement of support for Lori Berenson and call for her immediate release and safe passage out of Peru" and "call upon the President and the Secretary of State of the United States to immediately exercise their authority to use all diplomatic means possible to achieve the release of this American woman." In addition, on February 22, NOW initiated an "Urgent Action" campaign for Lori's release featured on the homepage of the NOW, www.now.org. The website offers letters to President Bush and Secretary of State Powell to be e-mailed or printed.

In closing the report of their visit to Lori in January, the delegation of religious leaders wrote. "From her cell, Lori Berenson today calls for the international attention to the human rights of a vast invisible population of Peruvians suffering from poverty and injustice. As a group, we were energized by Ms. Berenson's hortative mission. One member of our delegation observed: 'One thinks of a jail as a very dismal place, a very dark place, but she was there as a source of light among other prisoners.' Lori Berenson identifies with their struggle, just as in the past she had identified with the struggle of the poor and oppressed. She helps other prisoners see their own worth. She helps them in understanding that they need not mutely submit to the violation of their fundamental rights. Those who are imprisoned with her are being inspired to stand up for their rights and dignity."

More detail about any of the above can be found by visiting www.freelori.org. The Committee to Free Lori Berenson asks that all who are engaged in the struggles against injustice will find a few moments to support our work. We have an every Tuesday call-in campaign to the White House, urging the Administration to bring her home; 202.456.1111.

As always there is need for funds, both for the national campaign and regional work; please contact our National coordinator, Laura Furst 202.548.8480

These are complicated times for those of us in the peace and justice struggle. I know all who read this are probably as fully extended as possible in your good work. Nevertheless, I would urge each of you to find a few moments occasionally to help us in our continuing effort to obtain justice for Lori.