Peru Mocks Due Process

The New York Times -- 16 January 1996 , page A16


Lori Helene Berenson of New York City may indeed have conspired with violent terrorists, as the Peruvian Government claims, helping them obtain weapons, rent safe houses, and gather information for guerrilla attacks. Or Ms. Berenson's activities with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement may have been strictly nonviolent, as she insists. A fair trial might have determined the answer. But a fair trial is exactly what she did not get.

Ms. Berenson's lawyers were not allowed to cross-examine witnesses or challenge evidence. The identities of her military judge were concealed. The court then convicted her of treason, an offense that, as a non-Peruvian, she cannot be guilty of, and sentenced her to life in prison, although the prosecutor had only sought 30 years. The United States Government has strongly protested the entire proceeding.

Peru began subjecting civilians to this kind of military trial as a weapon against the once-dangerous Shining Path guerrilla movement, a threat that has now been largely contained. But the military courts continue to deprive Peruvians and foreigners of their most basic right to due process. They are among the more disturbing trappings of President Alberto Fujimori's authoritarian regime.

Mr. Fujimori was democratically elected to a second term last year. Voters rewarded his success in rolling back the guerrilla challenge and taming hyper-inflation. But he still rules in partnership with a military that has never accepted democracy and is responsible for grave human rights abuses. Though there is once again an elected congress, replacing the one that Mr. Fujimori dissolved in 1992, its powers are weak and are rarely exercised. Nor is there any longer much of an independent judiciary. Mr. Fujimori's power knows no real constitutional check.

Throughout the 1980's, Peru maintained a constitutional democracy on paper. But its blessings were negated by economic decline, violent terrorism and a notoriously parasitic bureaucracy. Now public order is much improved and the economy revived. But the Peruvian people are subject to arbitrary arrest, unfair trials and other abuses of their most basic rights.

Ms. Berenson's lawyers are applealing the verdict, asking that the treason charges be reduced, perhaps to terrorism or collaboration, and the trial sent to a civilian court. Whatever she may or may not have done, she is surely entitled to that minimal degree of due process.

Ms. Berenson is strongly committed to the Tupac Amaru cause. She wants no special help from Washington, asking to be treated no differently then her Peruvian co-defendants. They too are entitled to due process in an open trial. Peru's progress in other areas does not have to come at the expense of its people's elementary rights.