Editorial comment: Prisoner of conscience

The Riverdale Press -- 28 May 2009

Journalist Lori Berenson has been imprisoned since 1995. As Rep. Eliot Engel has said, "It's enough already."

Diplomatic efforts by the Obama administration surely contributed to Iran's decision to release Roxana Saberi, a young American freelance journalist imprisoned in January on concocted charges of spying.

Sadly, the case of another ardent young journalist abroad has faded from view. Kingsbridge-born Lori Berenson has now spent more than a quarter of her life in Peruvian prisons. She married behind bars and recently bore her first child. It is time for her to come home.

As Rep. Eliot Engel, who has been persistent in seeking Ms. Berenson's release since The Press first raised the issue in 1999, said in a recent interview, "It's enough already."

Arrested in 1995 and charged with belonging to a guerilla organization, Ms. Berenson was tried by a kangaroo court of hooded military judges and sentenced to life in prison.

Under pressure from human rights organizations, Peru modified the charges and the sentence, but sent her back to prison for 20 years. She has now served 13 and a half years of that sentence, much of it in conditions that amount to abuse.

In a meeting with Peru's president Alan Garcia, Mr. Engel, who heads the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, asked Mr. Garcia to commute the sentence. He left feeling optimistic, he said in a recent interview, "but now nothing has happened."

The issue is delicate, he noted. If American officials make too much noise too publicly, the Peruvians will regard their efforts as an intrusion on their sovereignty. But the window of opportunity is narrow. It will close when Peruvians begin their presidential campaign.

So Mr. Engel and other members of Congress have written to Mr. Garcia and to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to ask for action. Ultimately, they and Ms. Berenson's family hope, President Obama will spend some of his political capital to gain her release.

"Obama is a rock star," said Mr. Engel, who accompanied the president to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad in April, and saw the enthusiastic reception he got from his Latin American counterparts, and who praised the president's policy of engagement with the southern hemisphere.

You can join Mr. Engel by asking the president to act by on Ms. Berenson's behalf. Call the White House at 202-456-1111 and tell the operator you hope he will help secure her release.

Ms. Berenson's imprisonment has left her with a variety of ailments. Her eyesight has been impaired. She needs back surgery.

But she has been unyielding in her criticism of economic exploitation. In a year-end message, she looked outside her jail cell at a mining operation that, she said, plundered the landscape and polluted the air and water without sharing the resulting wealth with the people of the area.

Lori Berenson stands convicted of being an outspoken critic of inequality and injustice. For that, as our congressman says, "enough is enough."