A Visit with Lori Berenson in Huacariz Prison, Peru

CommonDreams.org -- 14 November 2003

by Kristen Gardner

Kristen was Lori's college roommate at MIT. She has been working for Lori's release and for the rights of all prisoners in Peru. In November she visited Lori for the third time since her arrest in 1995.

Sitting on her bed, talking about life plans, relationships, and politics, it almost feels like when we were in college. Except that the bed is cold concrete and we don't have much choice about the tempo of our visit - we must cram our conversations into the official visiting hours during my short time in Peru. As on my other trips to the prison, I am so glad to be there, catching up on the years between visits. But there is also a lingering weight that cannot be ignored.

Lori has been in prison for eight years of a twenty-year sentence. She is accused of aiding the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a small rebel group in Peru. The Organization of American States' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has declared that Peru has violated her rights on a number of fronts. For example, she has been charged under laws that are out of compliance with international human rights standards according to Amnesty International and the OAS.

Despite the clear international and legal arguments on her side, Lori is uncertain as to what the future holds. She thinks that the political situation within Peru has more of a bearing on her future than the outcome of her legal case, which will be heard by the OAS Inter-American Court on Human Rights next year.

Although the period of violence that has claimed tens of thousands of Peruvian lives has come to an end, there has been no resolution of the underlying conflicts. The conditions that drove thousands of citizens to take up arms have not improved. The majority of the population lives on less than $2 a day. The government officials still use the country's money to benefit themselves and sell off common resources to outside investors. During the war, and especially during the regime of President Fujimori (1990-2000), citizens' right to dissent was violently squashed. Journalists who criticized the government were kidnapped and tortured; lawyers who defended political prisoners were arrested; and jails filled up with people convicted of terrorism under laws so vague that almost anything could be defined as a terrorist act. The recent Truth and Reconciliation report estimates that 69,000 people were killed between 1980 and 2000: approximately 30% by the government, 17% by government-aligned paramilitaries, 51% by the Shining Path (a Maoist rebel group), and under 2% by the MRTA.

Some things are improving in Peru. One taxi driver we met observed that the current president, Alejandro Toledo, has reduced the political repression. Newspapers more freely criticize the government and people can again express their views without imminent fear of death or arrest. Even so, in reaction to recent strikes, Toledo declared a state of emergency, instituting military rule for 30 days. And the economic situation has not improved at all; some say it has gotten worse.

President Toledo has agreed to abide by the findings of the OAS Court on Lori's case, due out late 2004. But whether he will in fact do so remains to be seen. Toledo has so little support in Peru that there is a movement afoot within the government to oust him before his term is up. Even if he survives this attempt, he is not a strong leader and may be unable or unwilling to take clear action on any front. The Committee to Free Lori Berenson is gathering the support of organizations worldwide to push for Lori's release when the OAS ruling is released. (For more information on this campaign, see www.freelori.org.)

Meanwhile, Lori continues to live her life as best she can. She recently got married to Anibal Apari, whom she met in Yanamayo Prison soon after her arrest. He was recently released on parole after serving 12 years of a 15-year sentence. He plans to visit Lori as often as he can and will be returning to law school to finish his studies. So many students were arrested over the past fifteen years that the universities have established a special process for helping them return to school.

Despite the dreary and confining circumstances Lori is in, she continues to be very lively and generous. While I was there she made a cake for other prisoners and gave some of the groceries I brought to some of the male prisoners. Her ability to make the best of such conditions is always an inspiration to me.