Guilty Until Proven Guilty

May 2001

Grahame Russell, Rights Action

Lori Berenson nears the end of her second "trial" in Perú, on charges of collaborating with the MRTA (Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement) rebel movement. A final decision is expected in late May, or early June. Having just returned from a week in Perú observing her trial, visiting with Lori and other political prisoners in jail, and meeting with Peruvians working on issues related to human rights and the political prisoners, I have no doubt that this second court will also find Lori "guilty" and sentence her to further time in jail - perhaps as many as 20 years.

From the moment covert forces grabbed Lori off a bus in the city of Lima, November 30, 1995, she has been "guilty" of the charges against her. Both "trials" (a military trial in 1995-96, and this civilian trial) have not served the interests of justice. They have served the regime's need to confirm Lori's guilt.

On the website of the Committee to Free Lori Berenson, one can find reports, prepared by US lawyers and human rights experts who were in Perú observing this second "trial", that set out a lengthy list of violations of fundamental legal and civil rights. What is clear from their findings, and from my own trip, is that Lori is not on "trial" so much for actions she allegedly committed, but rather for her ideas, and particularly so as to reinforce the regime's need to confirm the "guilt" of people that they charge with "terrorism."

Though the pending sentence can be appealed to the Supreme Court of Perú, there is little doubt that without serious political changes in Perú, based upon a complete public accounting of the conflict, repression and terror of the past 20 years, the Supreme Court would also find Lori guilty.


Over the past 20 years, and particularly during the last 10 years of the Fujimori regime, all institutions and sectors of the Peruvian society (including the legal system itself, via the promulgation of the "Anti-Terrorist Laws" and via the Executive's control and corruption of judges, lawyers and magistrates) were manipulated and used to blame society's ills on the "terrorists." It was an easy excuse, and all the while Perú received considerable international economic and military support, particularly from the United States.

Since the day she was detained, Lori was labelled a "terrorist" by political leaders, members of the legislature and judiciary, military and police officials, and by an orchestrated campaign in the press. Anyone who might have argued for her innocence kept quiet; speaking in favor of the right to a fair trial, for someone accused of terrorism, could and did to charges of "terrorism" being laid against that person!

Internal Conflict and Terror

To understand why Lori will continue to be found "guilty", it is important to understand the context in which the military regime of Fujimori used and distorted the concept of who were the "terrorists". During the past 20 years of internal conflict and repression in Perú, close to 30,000 people have been killed or massacred, and another 4,000 disappeared. Of this gruesome total, it is estimated that government forces (military, police, paramilitary and covert death squads) are responsible for close to 60% of the deaths, and the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) armed rebel movement (now pretty much eliminated or in jail) is responsible for close to 40%. The MRTA (now eliminated or in jail) is allegedly responsible for less than 1% of the total. There is no question that State forces planned and employed tactics of terror in the 1980s and the 1980s, in its efforts to silence any opposition to the status quo, and in its counter-insurgency campaign against the armed rebel groups. There is no question that the Shining Path used widespread terror military tactics in its efforts to overthrow the Peruvian regime. Many innocent civilians were killed, massacred, disappeared, tortured and otherwise terrorized by both the State and the Shining Path.

Thus, while both used terror as an integral part of their military and paramilitary strategies, it was the State - particularly the Fujimori regime (1992-2001) - that appropriated and propagated the idea that the State was fighting "terrorism".


Only very recently is Peruvian society becoming aware of the depth of corruption and repression of the Fujimori regime. After illegally consolidating power in the April 5, 1992 "self-coup", fully backed by the Peruvian Armed Forces and the international community, "President" Fujimori named Vladimir Montesinos as his security advisor. Over the next 9 years, until their ferocious grip on power unraveled in late 2000, Fujimori and Montesinos constructed a (not so) covert State apparatus based on corruption and repression.

Peruvian nightly news is now showing clips from some of the videos that Montesinos secretly taped of this corruption, with payoffs from a slush fund (estimated to be at least 1.1 billions dollars) that Fujimori and Montesinos operated, with the collaboration of 13 appointed ministers. Bought and brought into the corrupted shadow government were legislators, judges, lawyers, leading officials from the Armed Forces and police, owners of newspapers, radio and TV stations, and corporate and banking leaders.

This web of corrupted "leaders" of society was backed up by a (not so) covert state apparatus of repression that counted on the participation of generals and other officials from the Armed Forces and Police. At the center of this apparatus was the COLIMA paramilitary death squad. Yet, even as Peruvian society begins to emerge from 10 years of Fujimori corruption and repression, learning first-hand of this network of corruption and repression, there has been no change in the common understanding of how the word "terrorism" has been manipulated and abused in a one-sided fashion.

Though it is now clear that the State planned and carried out acts of terrorism and repression, going well back into the 1980s, politicians, the press, the church and most human rights groups will not openly accuse the State of planning and committing human rights violations and acts of terror.

Though it is well documented that none of the political prisoners received fair trials, and that many had no substantial links to the MRTA or the Shining Path, politicians and the press still repeatedly and almost casually refer to the more than 2,500 political prisoners as "terrorists".

The point is not to say that armed rebel groups - particularly the Shining Path - did not commit violations of human rights and acts of terrorism; they did. Neither is the point that rebel groups are free of responsibility in the conflict; they should be held accountable. However, the point is that the State has an arguably greater responsibility for human rights violations and acts of terrorism, going further back in history, and yet the State has essentially gotten away with their crimes and violations with impunity.

Truth Commission

Human rights groups, along with some politicians and some of the press, are calling now for the establishment of a Truth Commission to investigate the causes and facts of the internal conflict in Perú over the past 20 years. If Perú is to have the chance of constructing a just society, based on the rule of law, real democracy and social-economic justice, such a Commission is clearly necessary.

But even as they call for such a Truth Commission, many are asking that this Commission investigate the "terrorism" of the rebel groups and the "excesses" or "mistakes" of the government! It might be that most sectors of Peruvian society are still too afraid of the State to address and challenge this one-sided and distorted concept of "terrorism." It might also be that they are hanging desperately onto the concept of the "war on terrorism", so as not to look directly at just how much the government and the military have deceived and abused the country and its people.

But if the Truth Commission accepts the double-standard distortion that the government and military committed "excesses" and "mistakes", then there is little hope that Perú's structures of impunity, inequality and abuse will be transformed. There is even less hope that that the political prisoners will ever get fair trials, let alone honest revisions of the unjust sentences that most of them received under the draconian "anti-terrorist" legislation of the Fujimori regime.