Jailed MRTA Leaders Tell OAS Human Rights Group Lori Was Not A Member

Reuters -- 20 November 1998

WASHINGTON - Leftist rebel inmates at a Peruvian prison regard American fellow convict Lori Berenson as a "prisoner of conscience" and not one of their own, a member of a human rights delegation who recently visited the jail said on Friday.

The report could give new support to claims by Berenson's backers that she was wrongly convicted of being a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a Cuban-inspired guerrilla group.

MRTA guerrillas told members of the delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that Berenson was not a member of their group. "They told us that she is a prisoner of conscience, that she is not one of them," said the member of the delegation, who asked not to be identified.

"They are, of course, very open about calling themselves prisoners of war and all that, but they don't talk that way about her," the delegation member told Reuters.

A 14-person delegation from the commission visited Perú last week at the invitation of President Alberto Fujimori to investigate reports of human rights violations in Perú.

Berenson, a New Yorker convicted by a military court in 1996 of belonging to MRTA, has been held along with about 45 battle-hardened MRTA rebels in the notorious Yanamayo prison at a head-spinning 12,700 feet (3,900 metres) above sea level in the Andes mountains.

She was moved from Yanamayo to Socabaya prison near Arequipa in mid-October. A regional prison official has said she could be moved "as soon as possible" back to Yanamayo but prison officials confirmed on Friday she has not yet been moved.

Berenson had been living for more than a year in Perú when she was arrested in late 1995 and charged with helping to plan a guerrilla attack on Perú's Congress, which was later thwarted.

Conditions at the jail where she and some 380 other inmates have been held have been described as subhuman by international rights groups.

The delegation member said the prison's conditions were so harsh that they suggested Fujimori's government "was seeking to destroy the physical and mental well-being of these people."

"That's the only reason I can see for the rigorousness of these conditions," he said.

Despite the tough conditions, he said most inmates looked "surprisingly good" and seemed to be in generally good health.

The delegation met Fujimori and top Cabinet members and visited several prisons, where it described conditions as "extremely harsh including solitary confinements of 23 hours a day in very small spaces," the commission said in a report issued last week.

But the commission also noted "important advances" in Perú's human rights record since the commission's last visit in 1993, citing an end to reports of summary executions and "disappearances" of people by security forces, and said it was free to work and move within Perú.