Ailing American jailed for life in Peru seeks early freedom

Reuters -- 10 March 1999

by Walker Simon

UNITED NATIONS - A New York woman jailed for life in Peru as a rebel leader and suffering from stomach pains, purple hands and failing eyesight, is seeking immediate freedom rather than a new trial, U.S. visitors to her prison site said on Wednesday.

"She wanted out of prison; she categorically stated her innocence," Lori Berenson told Rev. Lucius Walker, a New York Baptist pastor who visited her on March 2 at Socabaya prison, 600 miles (about 1000 km) south of Lima.

Walker, who spoke at a news conference, was one of six human rights advocates who saw Berenson shortly after her parents said she had been released from 115 days of solitary confinement.

Berenson, 29, was sentenced to life on charges of treason in January 1996 by a hooded military judge. A closed-door military tribunal convicted her of being a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.

President Bill Clinton, the majority of the U.S. Senate and 180 U.S. congressmen have requested an open, civilian retrial for Lori Berenson.

Her parents, Mark and Rhoda, who had been active in rounding up congressional support for this trial demand, now said they had given up on the prospect of an fair trial in Peru after often visiting their daughter, speaking to her at least once a month in Peru.

"I think it's become perfectly clear that there is an unwillingness to give an open trial," Mrs. Berenson said at the news conference.

"After her arrest, all along we've wanted a trial because we like the public to see (if) there's anything there. But after this time and all of this suffering, we think enough is enough; she should come home," she said.

Delegation member Amy Goodman, a broadcaster for Pacifica radio network, said she was the first journalist to have had access to Berenson since her detention on Nov. 30, 1995.

"Lori's hands are purple. They had been inflamed. She has problems with her circulatory system, with her eyes and her digestion," she said.

Berenson was constantly rubbing her hands to improve circulation in her hands, purple from the fingertips almost to the wrist, Walker added.

Her parents said the circulatory ailments were altitude-related because for 2-1/2 years, she had lived in a frigid cell at Yanamayo prison, 12,700 feet (3,780 meters) above sea level on a hilltop overlooking Lake Titicaca.

Lori Berenson blamed her constant stomach ills on the fact she could only use a bucket of dirty water a day for bathing, washing and cooking at Yanamayo, Goodman and Walker said.

Last October, Peru, citing medical grounds, moved Berenson to Socabaya, a freshly-painted women's prison outside Arequipa, a city 7600 feet (2,310 meters) above sea level.

Her parents, through the International Committee of the Red Cross, have paid a dermatologist and an eye doctor to examine her. Her mother said they hoped a gastroenterologist would visit soon.