Setting the record straight

Bergen Record -- 21 January 2005

by Gary Handschumacher

James Ahearns's analysis of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights decision to support Peru in its continued persecution of Lori Berenson (Other Views, Jan. 12) is not only mean-spirited, it is loaded with untruth. Some of these untruths are obvious, others are well-concealed.

Lori is not in Lima. She is in Cajamarca, 500 miles north of the capital.

He claims that if the IACHR's had ruled to free Lori it would have been legally binding on Peru. On paper only. Peru has a record of avoiding such decisions by merely opting out of the court's jurisdiction. In fact there have been admissions by Peruvian officials that they threatened the court and that they were prepared to do so again.

Curiously Ahearn chooses not to mention that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had decided unanimously in 2002 that Lori is unjustly imprisoned and that the recent decision marks the first time in its existence that the court has contradicted the commission.

He lists a series of "crimes" committed by Lori, including buying food. He chooses not to explain that these allegations were concocted by ex-President Alberto Fujimori's regime (Fujimori is hiding in Japan while murder charges await him in Peru. Many of his cohorts still wield power in Peru). Ahearn claims there is evidence. No evidence has ever surfaced.

Ahearn's largest untruth is his contention that "the people" of Peru support the continuing persecution of Lori and thousands of other political prisoners. He uses unreferenced polling that said that 33 percent believe she is guilty. Does that mean that two-thirds believe otherwise? And he fails to mention that only a small percentage of Peruvians would be aware of any polls, let alone have the ability to respond.

He joins a long list of opinion writers who have invoked the belief of "the people" of Peru. As with others "the people" he refers to are light-skinned, privileged residents of Lima who live comfortable lives while the vast majority of Peru's population lives in crushing poverty. Ahearn's disingenuousness about this is reminiscent of those who, 20 years ago, invoked the thoughts of "the people" of South Africa that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist and deserved his brutal imprisonment. Ahearn's "the people" excludes all those live in the shanties surrounding Lima, and simply denies the existence of those outside the capital.

I wish he could have been with me last year when I visited Lori in Cajamarca. A local group of folkloric dancers had performed for the prisoners on the day of my visit. After their performance, these young men and women formed a line to, one by one, excitedly embrace Lori.

Ahearn quotes Lori, out of context, at her "presentation" to the press in early 1996. She stated her belief that the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement [MRTA]is not a terrorist group. He suggests that this belief is sufficient cause for her imprisonment.

Finally, Ahearn's largest lie is to imply that the MRTA was responsible for thousands of deaths in Peru since 1980. I would refer him to Amnesty International's recent analysis, which states that 54 percent of the deaths were at the hands of Sendero Luminoso and 46 percent were carried out by forces of Peru's government (both groups targeted the MRTA).

I would also refer him to the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report which attributed 53 percent to Sendero Luminoso and 45.5 percent to government forces.

Sorry, but it leaves little statistical room for the charge of MRTA responsibility.

Ahearn sarcastically accuses those who support justice for Lori and others of trying to compare them to George Washington. I would remind him that in the eyes of King George III and "the people" of England, Washington was a "terrorist."

Gary Handschumacher has worked with members of the Free Lori Berenson Committee for more than nine years.