Who is Lori Berenson?

Ground Score -- July 2003

by Mike Connelly and Arnie Matlin

"When your mothers,
who've loved you since time without beginning,
Are suffering, what use is your own happiness?
Therefore to free limitless living beings
Develop the altruistic intention -
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas."
From The Thirty - Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas (# 10)

Many people reading this article could have a daughter like Lori Berenson. She is the child of caring, intelligent parents. Both Rhoda and Mark Berenson are college professors of liberal - although not radical - persuasion, who raised their daughter to be a concerned, thoughtful citizen of the world.

As a child, Lori was probably pretty much what you'd expect - a normal kid, except for an early identification with underdogs that may have been unusual but wasn't extraordinary. However, as Lori grew older, she refused to sit quietly in the safety of a relatively privileged experience, or languish in the despair of personal helplessness. She was called to a life of active idealism. As a student at MIT, she became fascinated by Latin American culture. Lori's identification with the poor and oppressed to the south must have blossomed greatly after she traveled to several Central American hot spots. While in Nicaragua, Lori became secretary to expatriated Salvadoran revolutionaries of the FLMN - now a bona fide Salvadoran political party. Academic life had been shelved for the real thing - Lori wanted and needed something more immediate and "hands on."

Lori's quest for truth and justice called her to a journalistic mission in Peru. Lori was disturbed by the disjunction between stated American ideals and reality. She became unwilling and unable to live quietly with the immense discrepancy between that stated ideals of justice and due process, and the realities of poverty, injustice, and impunity. It became obvious to Lori that much of that cruelty was ignored or aided by the U.S. government. In fact, much of Peru's domestic policy was a projection of American power in a Peruvian context.

Unfortunately, at present, Lori's story does not have a happy ending. Lori has paid - and is still paying - a high price for her idealism. She has languished and suffered in Peruvian prisons for the last seven years, after two "trials," no due process, and more hindrance than help from the U.S. State Department.

This is a little of Lori's haunting, disquieting story. It is the story of a woman who could be a child of yours or mine. This is the story of a woman whom you would rejoice in claiming as your sister. And it is the story of a young woman who has become a mature mother to all the poor and suffering of Peru, even to those who revile her.

Lori's story is a long and complex one. The best source for a vivid picture of both Lori and of her experiences is found in Rhoda Berenson's book, Lori: My Daughter, Wrongfully Imprisoned in Peru, now available in an updated paperback edition from Northeastern University Press.

The story of Mark and Rhoda's perplexity and horror in 1995 at suddenly learning that their daughter had been swept into a Peruvian jail, a Peruvian "court," and various Peruvian prisons is hypnotically spellbinding and horrifying. It would have been easier to put the book down if only it were fiction. But, the story is not fiction; it is fact. Furthermore, as we noted before, this story so far doesn't have a happy ending.

After finishing her work in Central America, Lori went on to Peru in part to write about legislative politics and human rights issues in that country, and she began attending sessions of the congress there. The single best word to describe Peruvian politics during that period might be "bizarre." Lori was exposed to these bizarre politics both as visitor and later as a prisoner, during the notoriously corrupt presidency of Alberto Fujimori.

With democratic institutions in Peru almost entirely abridged, and with a centuries long tradition in Peru of an inadequate judiciary, and with the rich becoming ever richer and the poor ever poorer, Peru became a robust breeding ground for revolution and terror. There were two principal revolutionary organizations: the Shining Path and the MRTA.

Shining Path, an explicitly Maoist group, was exceptionally ruthless, and certainly rivaled the Peruvian government in the cruelty of its oppression of indigenous Peruvians. MRTA was a democratic alternative or "loyal opposition," but went underground when almost all opposition groups were outlawed. [About a year after Lori's imprisonment, the MRTA gained international notoriety for holding a number of people hostage at the Japanese Ambassador's residence in Lima. It seems certain that a complete hostage release could have been readily negotiated, but Fujimori's hold on power was dependent on being "tough on terrorism." Eventually government forces raided the residence, killing all of the MRTA and one of the hostages. (MRTA members who had tried to surrender were shot point blank.)]

There is a horrible, grotesque aspect to politics in Peru. This atmosphere is reminiscent of George Orwell's novel, 1984. Lies are truth, war is peace, and justice is a hideous parody. Fujimori played his part as a cruel, powerful "Big Brother." When the Japanese Ambassador's residence was raided and all the MRTA killed, Fujimori posed proudly standing on a dead insurgent's body. When Lori was arrested, Fujimori waved her passport and exclaimed "gringa terrorista, gringa terrorista!" The press, of course, feeds on this ghastly circus atmosphere. (In Peru the yellow press is bright yellow.) Lori certainly had progressive left - wing views. She knew people whom she later learned were members of the MRTA. The Peruvian government has utilized this fact as evidence for Lori's "guilt by association." In truth, however, Lori has been consistent in her advocacy of nonviolence. The Peruvian government has never been able to produce any evidence that Lori espoused, supported, or carried out terrorism in any way. There isn't any evidence because none of these things ever happened.

The prejudicial context, which has haunted Lori's case since 1995, was manipulated to appear damning. The actual evidence against her - along with any semblance of due process in both of her "trials" - is non - existent.

After her arrest, Lori was held in a rat - infested cell with a woman prisoner who had been shot and had not received adequate medical attention. Lori spent days vainly trying to help this suffering woman. Lori was then dragged off to a "press conference." At this press conference, she was encouraged by her jailers to "speak up," because there would not be any microphones. Lori exclaimed angrily that her solidarity was with the poor. Lori has paid a huge price for this courageous but naïve outpouring. Since that fateful "press conference," Lori has been disowned by the American government for her progressive views, and scorned by many of the Peruvian people who have believed the lie that she is a "gringa terrorista."

After seven years of suffering, Lori is older, wiser, and more mellow, but not a whit less forthright, courageous, and principled. To quote Noam Chomsky, [Lori] "is...a woman of remarkable courage and integrity, who has chosen to accept the fate of all too many others in Peru." (Lori has been urged to falsely acknowledge guilt, and throw herself on the mercy of the court. This is accepted practice for prisoners - especially women - in Peru. Lori refuses to do this. She is not guilty, and she will not say that she is guilty.)

By his shrewd manipulation of public opinion, Fujimori had obtained a powerful symbol that he used relentlessly against Lori. At the time Lori was arrested, trials of "suspected terrorists" were conducted by military tribunals presided over by hooded judges. Lori sat through this brief procedure literally with a gun held to her head. There was no cross - examination of witnesses, no real opportunity for pretrial examination of evidence, and, in fact, no evidence to examine. There was no due process whatsoever. (She did have an attorney, but he was not allowed to defend her.) She was sentenced to life in prison for terrorism and treason as an "MRTA leader."

In Rhoda Berenson's book, it's hard to judge which was the most harrowing: the horror of the Berenson family's experience, the account of Lori's tribulations, the story of the Peruvian travesty of due process, or the profound and fundamental acceptance of the situation by the U.S. government and State Department.

Perhaps the attitude of State at high echelons could be summed up this way: "Please don't disturb us with anything other than business as usual. You keep quiet and leave things to us, and everything will possibly be fine some day, but not right now." (This can be translated as, "Our cozy relationship with this brutal regime will continue on an even keel and your daughter will remain in prison.")

Dennis Jett, the U.S. Ambassador, showed the scowl behind the diplomatic smile during much of Lori's early imprisonment. After his tenure as Ambassador, Jett wrote an odious op - ed piece in the Washington Post, comparing Lori to the young U.S. citizen who joined the Taliban. Ex - Ambassador Jett overtly defamed Lori, just as high - ranking officials at State had done covertly, attempting to undermine Lori's support and to discredit her.

Lori spent the first several years of captivity at the isolated Yanamayo prison high in the Andes. This evil structure is 13,000 feet above sea level. Conditions in these awful circumstances have caused Lori's health to be permanently damaged. Prison officials at Yanamayo compounded the thinness of oxygen at that elevation by having cells with shutterless windows that face into the freezing and continuous wind.

Due at least in part to pressure from U.S. citizens and congressmen and congresswomen, Lori eventually was moved to other prisons. In Araquipa prison, her increased oxygen was offset by a loss of social contact. She was held in isolation, which was harder for her to bear than the cold of Yanamayo.

After years of Lori's imprisonment, the Peruvian military itself nullified Lori's sentence. The ludicrous lack of evidence against Lori - not to mention the outrageous circumstances of a U.S. national being tried in such a manner - was thereby acknowledged. (Lori would strongly disapprove of this statement for its implication that such circumstances would be fine for Peruvians. However, for better or worse, Lori is a U.S. citizen and not a Peruvian national.) Rather than being released, Lori was tried a second time, this time in a show trial by a civilian court.

If you have been exonerated for lack of evidence and due process, a second trial on the same charges would seem to constitute double jeopardy, but not, apparently, in Peru. Because the "evidence" used in the first "trial" was basically as worthless as gossip, one would think new evidence might be forthcoming, but not in Lori's case. At this second "trial," the Peruvian government hinted at exactly what Lori's sentence would be while the "trial" was in still in progress! Sure enough, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison for "collaboration," rather than life without parole for "treason." On the face of it, this is a modest improvement. In fact, it means that Lori still would serve 12 1/2 years in prison if no one intervenes.

Both the civilian and military tribunals have been widely condemned, and there is reason for cautious optimism now. The matter is being addressed by the Inter - American Court of Human Rights, and Peru claims it will abide by the court's decision. It is all but impossible to imagine that the Inter - American Court would rule against Lori, but it may be some time before that proceeding will be completed. (The Inter - American Commission on Human Rights has already ruled in Lori's favor.)

The amalgam of yellow journalism, corrupted politics, and deeply felt popular dislike of terrorism in Peru have certainly worked against Lori. Her portrayal as the "gringa terrorista" has stuck, providing post - Fujimori Peru with little incentive to recognize Lori's human right to due process. (Fujimori resigned in the teeth of overwhelming scandal and absconded to Japan, his country of origin. Interpol is seeking him on charges of crimes against humanity. We note with interest that Dennis Jett - pals with the Fujimori government on behalf of the U.S. - has not written an article or a letter published by The Washington Post about Fujimori, comparing him with Osama bin Laden.) Until recently, a large majority of Peruvians have favored holding Lori in prison. However, the image of her as terrorist has begun to collapse, and recently more than two - thirds of polled Peruvians would accept her release if the Inter - American Court exonerates her.

This article does not begin to describe the extremity of Lori's experience and the experience of her family. It only touches on the extent of the injustice she has borne. Nor does it convey the rich depth of her courage, conviction and compassion, or even touch upon Lori's selfless and tireless advocacy for the poor and for political prisoners in Peru. Hopefully, though, some readers will awaken to a sense of kinship to Lori, and find a reason to look further into her plight.

It isn't always easy to do the "easy" things like writing letters to support Lori. For one thing, one is reminded of and appalled by the extent of the Berensons' sacrifice. Moreover, one is overwhelmed by the unjust suffering that Lori Berenson has undergone for more than seven years. But when advocating for Lori, there comes a growing recognition of kinship. Lori is our sister and that becomes a source of joy and pride. Lori Berenson, by her intense compassion and her startling patience in suffering injustice herself, has become mother to the suffering poor of Peru.

To the extent that we work to free Lori we work to free our own children too, and we work to free all children. Working on her behalf creates new freedom for ourselves. And it relieves the suffering of our Mothers.