Free U.S. Woman Jailed in Peru, U.S. Lawmakers Urge

Reuters -- 10 June 1999

by Walker Simon

NEW YORK, June 10 (Reuters) - Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have asked President Bill Clinton to take all necessary steps to free Lori Berenson, a New Yorker serving a life sentence in Peru on charges of treason.

The 177 members signed a letter, distributed on Thursday by New York Democrat Rep. Carolyn Maloney, urging Clinton to do everything in his power to seek justice for Berenson, 29, sentenced by a hooded military judge in Lima in January 1996.

The "faceless" military court's verdict maintained that Berenson was a leader of the leftist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and had joined an alleged plan to hold the Peruvian Congress hostage.

While Berenson has said she sympathized with the MRTA's goal of alleviating poverty in Peru, she added she did not condone the use of violence.

Steadfastly maintaining her innocence, Berenson has long pressed for an open, civilian trial because the military court did not allow her to cross-examine witnesses or present evidence in her own defense.

The bipartisan group of representatives -- 40 percent of the House's 435 members -- said Clinton should strive to free her under a federal law that directs the President "to take all necessary steps, short of going to war" to secure the release of American citizens wrongfully incarcerated abroad.

"The finding of the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights is that the Peruvian government's disregard for international norms in Lori Berenson's case is so egregious ... that it has resulted in the wrongful, arbitrary deprivation of her liberty," according to the May 31 letter.

The Geneva-based U.N. commission's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined Berenson was being held in violation of two treaties of which Peru is a signatory -- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The U.S. representatives, most of them Democrats, said Berenson was recently held in solitary confinement for 115 days in Socabaya prison and was reported to be in poor health.

A lack of effective action on Berenson's behalf could endanger U.S. citizens abroad by sending the message that the United States will not act when its citizens are wrongfully imprisoned in foreign countries, the lawmakers said. A lack of strong action might also undermine the authority of the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights.

Another letter circulating in the U.S. Senate has been signed by 27 of the chamber's 100 members, according to Berenson's parents, Mark and Rhoda. That letter asks Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to press for Berenson's release on humanitarian grounds due to her deteriorating Lori Berenson has experienced numbness in both hands and night blindness in her right eye, a result of spending most of her imprisonment at high altitude. Until October 1998, she was held at Yanamayo prison, 12,700 feet (3,870 metres) above sea level, before being transferred to Socabaya.

Members of Congress expressed their concern over Berenson's treatment in letters to Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori in August 1996 and letters to Albright in December 1997. These letters pressed for a new civilian trial.

"Peru has consistently refused to give her a new trial and this is why we believe she should be freed immediately before her health deteriorates further," Rhoda Berenson said.