Parents' plea to Peru: Release our daughter

The Hill -- 3 March 1999


by Rhoda & Mark Berenson

As various congressional committees begin to set guidelines for deliberation over fair and appropriate distribution of foreign aid around the world, we want to remind them to consider adherence to human rights standards as a major criterion for allocating such aid.

And we want to remind them that our daughter Lori has been confined in a Peruvian prison without any legal justification. She repeatedly claims her innocence and has already spent over three years under extremely harsh conditions without ever having a trial that afforded any semblance of due process. Her health is failing.

The U.S. State Department and members of Congress have repeatedly asked the Peruvian government to honor its international commitments and provide a civilian trial for Lori. In December 1977, 55 senators and 180 representatives wrote to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to "do all within your power to impress upon the Peruvian government the importance of providing [Ms. Berenson] an open and fair proceeding in a civilian court without further delay."

More than one year has passed and the Peruvian government has refused to try Lori in a civilian court or pardon and release her, as suggested in June 1998 by Peru's Prime Minister Javier Valle Riestra. Furthermore, Dennis Jett, the U.S. ambassador to Peru, has publicly stated that Lori has been treated unduly harshly because she is a U.S. citizen.

The government of Peru has a long history of abusing human rights. Adherence to true democratic principles concerning separation of powers and the freedom of speech and the press and the right to assemble peacefully have been compromised. Judges rendering decisions opposed to President Fujimori have been dismissed; journalists have been jailed or exiled for their opposition; lawyers have been jailed for defending alleged terrorists; human rights leaders have received death threats; and thousands of civilians, like Lori, have been subjected to secret military tribunals under Peru's anti-terrorism laws which have been used as a mechanism to silence opposition.

Although since October 1997 the judges in these tribunals are no longer faceless, as pointed out in the State Department Human Rights report on Peru, these internationally criticized secret tribunals still deny any semblance of due process. The Peruvian government even admits that under these laws hundreds (human rights groups claim thousands) of innocent people have been imprisoned. These laws have created a sense of fear of arrest throughout the country. As pointed out in Business Week (May 18, 1998) Fujimori tramples over democracy. A New York Times editorial (Aug. 29, 1998) calls him the worst of the South American autocratic rulers.

Lori was working as a free-lance journalist at the time of her arrest. She was preparing articles on poverty in Peru, particularly as it affects women and children. Poverty is pervasive in Peru, a country with one of the highest neonatal death rates in the Western Hemisphere. In addition, as pointed out in a New York Newsday article (Jan. 17, 1999), Peru has a legacy of racism that has precluded the majority of the country from improving their economic lot.

Lori is in a Peruvian jail because of her concerns for the poor. In her only public statement (Jan. 8, 1996), she said: "I am to be condemned for my concern about the conditions of hunger and misery which exist in this country. ... If it is a crime to worry about the sub-human conditions in which the majority of this population lives, then I will accept my punishment."

The United States must be the world's guardian of human rights, liberty and justice for all peoples. And it must defend the rights of its own citizens. We ask that Congress withhold support for Peru, except for all forms of humanitarian aid, until its government conforms to its international legal obligations. The government of Peru has held our daughter hostage for its own political agenda for far too long.