American Faces Harsh Peruvian Reality

Boulder Weekly -- 4 March 1996

by Wayne Laugesen

Imagine sitting in a dark cage near the top of Longs Peak without enough clothes and barely enough food to survive. Imagine being there until you die.

Such are the conditions for Lori Berenson, a U.S. citizen jailed in a Peruvian prison with a life sentence for treason against the U.S.-supported Peruvian government.

"It's real hard for anyone in our family to get on with their normal lives when Lori is down there freezing," says Kathy Berenson, Lori's older sister.

Kathy Berenson was in Boulder last week to speak about her sister's plight as part of International Women's Week.

Picture of Kathy Bereson, Lori's sister
Kathy Berenson, pictured here, fears for her sister imprisoned in Perú

Public speaking was the furthest thing from Kathy's mind before her sister was abducted from a bus Nov. 30 by Peruvian authorities who suspected she headed the leftist rebel group Tupac Amaru (MRTA). They accused the group of planning to take over the Peruvian Parliament Building.

Lori had been in Perú for about a year, writing poetry and working as a freelance journalist. Kathy, Lori's only sibling and a graduate student at New York University, knew very little about the political climate of Perú until her sister's arrest. In fact, she says, other than Lori, her entire family is "apolitical."

"She told me there was a lot of injustice there, mostly against indigenous women," Kathy says. "She would send us letters, describing car bombings, and so on, but I really didn't expect her to become a victim of all this."

Kathy says her sister is not a member of MRTA, let alone the leader of the group. She says the government's accusation that Lori was involved in arms trafficking is "ludicrous," because Lori was first and foremost a pacifist.

But proving that could be difficult. In Perú, Lori isn't entitled to a trial by a jury of peers. Getting the Peruvian government to grant her a trial is the family's top priority.

"All Lori wants is a chance to clear this up with a trial," Kathy says. "But it's an uphill battle, because we don't think Peruvian officials care about the truth in this case. They are trying to make an example of Lori. She's just a scapegoat to show people what can happen to anyone who speaks out against the government."

Since Jan.11, Berenson has been in Yanamayo prison, a maximum-security facility with 6 1/2-by-10 foot unheated cells. Even in summer, the temperature seldom exceeds 40 degrees.

"Her hands are chapped and bleeding, and she has to run in place most of the time just to keep warm," Kathy says. "The altitude is so high that she gets sick a lot of the time."

Kathy says she's concerned that many of the Americans who have heard about her sister's plight think she's some sort of martyr, who doesn't mind being in prison. Nothing, she says, could be further from the truth.

"She wants justice for the people of Perú, but she doesn't want to stay in prison for her entire life," Kathy says. "She knows that she's there because she had to fight against injustice, but she definitely wants a fair trial and justice for herself. Anything would be more fair than this."

Because of an agreement between the U.S. and Peruvian governments, Lori would have to be held for life in an American prison if returned here. She has rejected that option, Kathy says, because it would divert attention from the poverty and oppression in Perú that she stands against.