Peru Urged To Free American

The Associated Press -- 3 March 1999

by David Koop

LIMA, Peru (AP) -- A New York woman serving a life sentence for terrorism in Peru is innocent and should be freed, a U.S. human rights delegation said Wednesday.

Six members of the Los Angeles-based Office of the Americas spoke after a rare meeting with Lori Berenson, who was convicted of helping leftist rebels of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement plan a thwarted assault on Peru's Congress.

Berenson was tried by hooded military judge in a closed trial that U.S. officials say denied her due process. They have called on Peru to give her an open, civilian trial.

"She was found guilty by association," Office of the Americas director Blase Bonpane said. "Through her work as an activist and a journalist she knew certain people and this has been used to claim she was a rebel."

For three years, Berenson was held in the frigid Yanamayo prison in the southern Andes Mountains in an unheated, open-air cell without running water, where Bonpane said her hands swelled up like "boxing gloves" from the cold and she developed gastric and eye problems.

She was transferred in October to the warmer Socabaya prison, 465 miles southeast of Lima, but for the first 115 days there was held in complete isolation, Bonpane said.

London-based Amnesty International called her total isolation "cruel and unusual punishment," and it was ended in late January, when authorities moved four women rebel prisoners into her cell block, Bonpane said.

Her parents have described Berenson, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student, as an activist and journalist who came to Peru to write articles for small U.S. publications.

Before her conviction, Berenson was presented to the news media in a wild spectacle during which she screamed support for Peru's poor, considered by most Peruvians to be an admission of guilt. She has not been allowed to speak publicly since, and the Peruvian media have portrayed her as an unrepentant terrorist.

Speaking Tuesday to the Office of the Americas delegation, Berenson said she shouted at news media because police had told her there were no microphones.

"She said she shouted because she was horrified by what she had seen and thought she had to shout to be heard," said Kristen Gardner, a friend who accompanied the delegation. "They have used that image of her angry, screaming face to discredit her ever since."