Peru's Judicial Travesty

American is Victim of 'Faceless Court' Process

Stuart News Editorial -- 7 October 1997

Peru has decided to abandon an ugly judicial joke called "faceless courts." As part of that decision, Peru should either grant a young American named Lori Berenson a fair trial or let her go.

In a faceless court, the judges either wear hoods or sit behind one-way glass. Berenson, now 27, had the bad luck to run afoul of a faceless court, in which the proceedings were secret and she was denied the right to counsel, witnesses, and cross-examination.

Not surprisingly, this travesty of justice summarily convicted her in January 1996 to life without parole, a sentence she is serving in an unheated cell, from which she is allowed out one hour a day, in a remote prison 13,000 feet high in the Andes, where her parents were recently allowed to visit for one hour, once a week. The military, which runs the faceless courts, upheld the sentence this summer.

The government of Alberto Fujimori has conceded that many of the convictions by the faceless courts were unfair and has begun freeing political prisoners, 226 so far. Human rights groups say hundreds more languish in prison unjustly.

These kangaroo courts are a legacy of a murderous, 17-year guerrilla insurrection, justified by the Peruvians on the grounds that desperate times demand desperate measures. Berenson was convicted of aiding the Tupac Amaru, the same guerrilla group that later took the Japanese ambassador's residence hostage.

What little evidence that has become public about her complicity, if that's what it was, is ambiguous. Fujimori's refusal to subject that evidence to a public trial under recognized standards of due process suggests that she was railroaded by a revenge-maddened government.

Peruvian Justice Minister Alfredo Quispe Correa says the existence of the faceless court "now makes no sense." It never did.

Peru owes its young prisoner a fair trial or a farewell.