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60 Attend Forum on Lori Berenson

By Brett Altschul

About 60 people gathered in Room 6-120 Wednesday evening for a forum on the plight of Lori H. Berenson. The forum was intended as a show of support for Berenson, a former MIT undergraduate who was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment in Peru by a secret military court in January.

The forum featured a panel of Berenson's parents and friends, as well as experts on human rights in Latin America. The forum also included a more general discussion of human rights in Peru.

Berenson withdrew from MIT in 1988 as a sophomore majoring in archeology and anthropology. She was arrested on Nov. 30 last year along with 22 others after an all-night shootout in a Lima suburb between Peruvian government forces and guerrillas from the Marxist Tpac Amaru Movement.

Professor of Anthropology Martin Diskin, one of Berenson's teachers at MIT and one of the organizers of the event, spoke of his experiences with Berenson.

Diskin described Berenson as a person who was deeply committed to human rights but remained peaceful and thoughtful.

"Lori wasn't the sort of person who made fists and made speeches. She didn't seem to want to burn the world down," Diskin said.

Diskin described a research project on which she worked, a study about applications by Salvadoran refugees for political asylum in the United States. "I think that was the turning point for her," Diskin said.

"It's inconceivable that [Berenson] had anything to do with the military side of things," Diskin said. She was "victimized for reasons that had very little to do with her behavior" by "a government that systematically destroyed its own population."

Berenson's lawyer in the United States, Thomas Nuter, outlined the procedures of the secret Peruvian military courts.

"Lori was blindfolded, driven around in circles for two hours, and taken into a special room in a prison with a hooded judge to hear the judge read the verdict," Nuter said. "That was the extent of her participation in her trial."

Nuter said that much of the evidence was the uncorroborated testimony of one of her co-defendants and that Berenson's Peruvian attorney had to share one copy of the prosecution's 2000-page indictment with all the other defendants' lawyers.

Berenson's lawyer in Peru had only 20 minutes to present his oral defense and was not allowed to hear the prosecutor present the government's case, Nuter said.

Berenson's mother, Rhoda, discussed her daughter's current conditions at Yanamayo prison in the Andes. "There's no heat and no running water, and she only gets out for half an hour each day," she said. "Even so, she's still cheerful."

Rhoda Berenson explained that people convicted of treason in Peru are not normally permitted to receive visitors until after they have served their sentence. Her family is forbidden to see her, but Lori receives regular visits from U.S. embassy staff.

Susanna Cardennes, a Peruvian who teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, discussed the current state of human rights in Peru.

"In 1995, two laws granted amnesty to members of the armed forces who committed human rights abuses," Cardennes said. "This is considered the most negative thing in the human rights history of Peru."

While the terrorism problems in Peru have not been solved, the situation is getting better, Cardennes said. Both the government and rebel groups have committed fewer human rights abuses since 1992, she said.