U.S. Couple see Jailed Daughter in Peruvian Andes

Reuters -- 7 December 1996 20:41:31 PST

PUNO, Peru (Reuter) - The parents of Lori Berenson, an American jailed for life in Peru on a treason conviction, saw her for the first time in a year when they visited the Yanamayo maximum security prison in the Andean city of Puno.

"For better or worse, she looks herself," her mother, Rhoda Berenson, told Reuters after she talked to Lori for 30 minutes through a mesh wire at the 13,000-foot high jail.

Lori Berenson, 27, was sentenced in January by a "faceless" military court for allegedly helping plot a takeover of Peru's Congress by the Cuban-inspired guerrilla group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).

Her parents, who under Peruvian law had to wait a year before visiting, could only see her in dim light after a storm caused an electrical blackout at Puno. They brought her vegetables, milk and books from New York, their home, and also gave her two locally bought chickens.

They said their daughter's hands were swollen and deformed because of circulation problems caused by the altitude of the prison. But they could not tell how severe her weight loss was because she was wearing too many sweaters.

"It was the quickest thirty minutes of my life. I'm relieved to have seen her, but exhausted," said her father, Mark Berenson. "It's been hell for us. We've waited a year, but it must have seemed like 20 years to her."

Lori Berenson spends 23 1/2 hours a day in a cold, tiny cell with no furniture. Fed extremely insufficient food, she has lost weight, has laryngitis and suffers altitude-related ailments such as dizzy spells, her parents said.

"It's brutal up there. I can't believe anyone can survive for very long. The system seems aimed to provoke a slow death," Mark Berenson said.

Since her conviction, there has been a growing campaign in the United States -- actively supported by former president Jimmy Carter -- to annul the decison of the military courts, where anonymous judges usually wear hoods and do not allow cross-examination.

Diplomatic pressure from Washington has also led Peru's President Alberto Fujimori to say he was considering a deal in which Berenson could be transferred to the United States. While Berenson's legal team has welcomed the political moves, the lawyers still hope to prove her innocence.

"I believe in Lori 100 percent. I'm as sure that she is innocent of treason and terrorism as I am that the sun will rise tomorrow," Mark Berenson said.

Peru's police and military accused Berenson of renting a house in Lima as a front for the MRTA guerrillas, transporting arms, helping to prepare psychologically rebel fighters, and gathering intelligence for a possible attack on the Peruvian Congress by posing as a journalist for U.S.-based magazines.