New Yorker in Peru Jail Found in Poor Health

The New York Times -- 11 March 1999

by Paul Lewis

UNITED NATIONS -- Members of an American delegation who visited a New Yorker sentenced to life in prison in Peru three years ago said Wednesday that she appeared to be in poor health but was still protesting her innocence.

One delegate, the Rev. Lucius Walker of Pastors for Peace, said the woman, Lori Berenson, had fingers that were "purplish with a kind of scratchy look" and was suffering "gastric problems" that he attributed to poor food and water.

Beyond Ms. Berenson's family, the group was the first from the United States permitted to visit her.

Another delegate in the six-member group, Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio, said that Ms. Berenson's hands were purple, that her face was very red and that she had circulatory, digestive and vision problems.

Ms. Goodman reported Ms. Berenson, 29, as saying she was innocent of the charges of which she was convicted in Peru. In January 1996, Ms. Berenson, who was working as a journalist in Peru, was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison for planning terrorist acts. She was tried before a secret military court presided over by a masked judge and was not allowed to present evidence.

In a letter written in Spanish to human rights organizations that the delegation released, Ms. Berenson denied that she was a member of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, a terrorist group, and said she had never planned violent acts.

After two and a half years at the Yanamayo maximum-security prison 12,500 feet above sea level, where she developed health problems, Ms. Berenson was moved to the Socabaya Prison, where she was in solitary confinement for 115 days.

The U.N. Human Rights Commission has classified her jailing as "arbitrary detention." The Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States has agreed to hear her case against Peru, and Amnesty International and other rights organizations have protested her treatment.

A majority of U.S. senators and 180 House members have signed petitions for a fair trial for Ms. Berenson.

Delegation members criticized the Clinton administration and the State Department for not having tried more forcefully to have her freed. They said that the U.S. ambassador in Lima, Dennis Jett, refused to visit her and that she had just four consular visits a year.

The latest State Department report on human rights in Peru, issued on Feb. 26, has a passing reference to Ms. Berenson. The report notes that Prime Minister Javier Valle Riestra called for her release and expulsion to the United States in June but was overruled by President Alberto Fujimori.

The report says the Peruvian judicial system is "inefficient, often corrupt," and that it "has appeared to be easily manipulated by the executive branch." The document also describes prison conditions as "extremely harsh, particularly in maximum-security facilities."