Spirits Unscathed; Woman jailed for treason strong, mom says

Associated Press -- 23 December 1995

by Harry Berkowitz

A Manhattan woman jailed in Peru for allegedly helping a rebel group has been interrogated at all hours of the day and night, but is far from falling apart, her mother said yesterday.

"She's very strong, incredibly strong considering what she's going through," Rhoda Berenson said of daughter, Lori.

Rhoda Berenson spoke with reporters after returning from Lima, Peru, worried about the 26-year-olds situation.

Lori Berenson was arrested in Lima three weeks ago on suspicion of aiding leftist rebels. Last week, a military tribunal began trying her for treason, a charge that carries a sentence of 30 years to life without parole.

Although she believes her daughter is innocent, Rhoda Berenson hopes the charge against her will be changed to terrorism or collaboration.

The sentence still could be stiff, but the case would go before a civil judge, where unlike in a military case, the defense is allowed to present evidence, said Rhoda Berenson and Tom Nooter, an attorney who also has been to Peru to see Rhoda Berenson's daughter.

Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Kennedy released a letter yesterday that he sent to Secrectary of State Warren Christopher asking him to intervene with the Peruvian government. Kennedy said Lori Berenson was being questioned without an attorney present and that authorities refused to share evidence with her attorneys.

"She doesn't have a handle on why this is happening," said Rhoda Berenson, a 52-year-old physics teacher at Nassau Community College.

After 1 1/2 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lori Berenson dropped out and took a job with a Salvadoran human rights group in New York.

In 1990, she moved to Central America, where she worked with rights groups in El Salvador and Nicaragua. She went to Peru in 1994 and planned to live there, her mother said.

She was "studying people, getting into writing. She was looking to break into journalism," Rhoda Berenson said.

Police haven't said what led them to Lori Berenson. They say she used press credentials obtained with a letter of introduction from Third World Viewpoint, a New York City quarterly magazine, to enter the congressional building in Lima and gather information for a takeover by rebels of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.

Police said they arrested 23 members of the group on Nov. 30 after an all-night gun battle at a hideout in Lima. Three rebels and one police officer were killed.

The rebels allegedly planned to seize the building and take hostages to force the release of imprisoned guerrilla leaders.

The editor of Third World Viewpoint, Lloyd D'Aguilar, said Lori Berenson was a free-lance writer who offered to write a story about women's rights in Peru.

Rhoda Berenson said her daughter had interviewed lawmakers for an article about women and poverty. Police also say they found rebel propaganda in Lori Berenson's apartment.