My daughter has been wrongfully imprisoned
Bergen Record, Letter to the Editor -- 21 January 2005
by Mark L. Berenson
My daughter Lori has been wrongfully incarcerated in Peru since the night of Nov. 30, 1995, when she was arrested on a public bus in Lima.
She has been a victim of injustice on three occasions: First, by a draconian Peruvian justice system that had received worldwide condemnation, second by a Peruvian propaganda machine that made her into the symbol of a "terrorist monster" and third by an international court that disappointingly capitulated to political pressure.
In January 1996, Lori was sentenced by a hooded military tribunal (now deemed illegal in Peru) to life in prison for treason while a hooded soldier held a gun to her head. When the Supreme Council of Military Justice was provided with evidence to show she was not a leader of a subversive group, the charge forming the basis for treason and the sentence were annulled and her case remanded to the civilian court system.
The civilian trial contained numerous violations of due process and was lead by a judge who had prejudiced himself against Lori in the press two years earlier. Nevertheless, this judge refused to recuse himself.
On June 20, 2001, Lori was convicted of collaboration and given a 20-year sentence. Once all judicial remedies were exhausted within Peru, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which had been studying Lori's case since January 1998, unanimously ruled in April 2002 that Peru's anti-terrorism laws failed to comply with the American Convention on Human Rights and needed to be thoroughly changed and that Lori's rights needed to be totally restored.
In November 2002, the Inter-American Court accepted the case of the Inter-American Commission against Peru. For two years we waited, hoping and expecting real justice - never considering that this highest legal body in the Western Hemisphere would capitulate to political pressure.
But it did. The "bottom line" is that last November, my daughter Lori was sacrificed by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which abrogated its fundamental responsibility of protecting individual rights in order to placate the inept, unpopular and corrupt government of Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo.
The Toledo administration, backing off on its commitment to the Organization of American States and to the Bush administration that it would abide by the ruling of the Inter-American Court, put enormous political pressure on that international body by declaring it would simply ignore any decision favorable to Lori and also by threatening to withdraw from the court's jurisdiction.
Anticipating a court ruling for Lori's freedom, Peruvian politicians who seemingly never agree on anything united against Lori and roused the public against the court by calling it "soft on terrorism" - words that could only embarrass this highest legal body of the Organization of American States in our post-9/11 global campaign against terrorism.
Rather than be rendered powerless by a disgruntled member country, the court, instead, immorally reversed its own position over the past 12 years and overruled the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which had unanimously declared that Lori's civilian trial, like her earlier military trial, failed to provide fairness and due process, that the Peruvian court failed to establish guilt in accordance with its own constitution, that Peru must bring its draconian anti-terrorism laws into compliance with international standards, and that Lori must receive moral, psychological and monetary indemnification for her wrongful suffering.
The shameful capitulation of the Inter-American Court to Peruvian political pressure is a stain on fundamental human rights and on the protection that citizens in the Western Hemisphere deserve.
These words have been articulated by Javier Valle Riestra, former prime minister of Peru, and by Waldo Albarracin Sanchez, current ombudsman of Bolivia. And the lack of logic expressed in the Inter-American Court's ruling is documented in the strong dissenting opinion provided by the Chilean Judge Cecilia Medina Quiroga, the only judge who maintained her integrity in the 6 to 1 vote.
My daughter Lori remains in prison today simply because she is a U.S. citizen.
This is wrong - it is a major violation of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Her high-profile and her highly politicized case began moments after her arrest when then-President Fujimori waived her passport on Peruvian television, something he did not do with passports of detainees from Panama, Bolivia or Chile.
Fujimori decided to "make an example" out of Lori as a warning to others who might venture to Peru and speak the truth about his dictatorship, thinly veiled as a democracy. The Fujimori-Montesinos-controlled media fabricated many horrendous stories about Lori, a few of which she was actually "accused" of in her trial.
Nevertheless, in her civilian trial she was convicted only as a "secondary accomplice," but this forms part of the charge of collaboration with terrorism - the minimum sentence for which is 20 years. Lori was acquitted of the role of leadership that formed the basis of her military trial conviction. She was also acquitted of both membership in a subversive group and militancy in a subversive group.
Lori was never involved in any act of violence, in Peru or elsewhere, and was never accused of such.
In reviewing her civilian trial sentence in February 2002, Guillermo Cabala, then president of Peru's Supreme Appeals Court, argued he did not agree with the conviction for collaboration - he did not think that the charge was proved. He argued that "Lori Berenson is not a terrorist and has not committed a terrorist act," and he opined that Lori should have been convicted on a lesser charge with a much lower sentence.
He was outvoted 4 to 1.
Peruvian justice, based on the Napoleonic system of proving innocence, is foreign to our judicial culture. To me, it is often incomprehensible. In Peru, murderers, rapists, kidnappers, violent offenders and armed robbers receive short sentences and are back in the streets on average in under five years.
I surmise that if Fujimori - a fugitive from justice who refuses to return to Peru from Japan to face charges of murder, torture and other crimes against humanity, along with corruption, wiretapping, election tampering, illegal enrichment - is ever tried he will get a far shorter sentence than Lori received.
Mark L. Berenson, a professor at Montclair State University, is Lori Berenson's father. More information is available at www.freelori.org. Send comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.