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Berenson's Parents Make Plea to Public

Greg Kuhnen -- The Tech
Campus Police remove a woman protesting Lori Berenson's plight after she broke through security lines set up for the president's visit.

By Dalie Jimenez

I met Mark and Rhoda Berenson the day before Commencement. They were in Boston to host some activities, including a press conference and vigil for Lori Berenson, their daughter and a former MIT student who has spent two and a half years in an Andean maximum security military prison.

They shared with me Lori's history - from what first interested her in human rights issues, to what brought her to Peru, to her experience serving out her jail sentence.

Lori was in Peru as a free-lance journalist for two leftist American publications, Third World Viewpoint and Modern Times, when she was arrested by the country's government with the charge of treason "against the fatherland of Peru." She had been researching articles on women's rights and poverty in Peru and had interviewed several members of Peru's Congress and government.

She was arrested on November 30, 1995, in Lima by Dinconte, the Peruvian anti-terrorist police, with the charge of being a high ranking official in the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.

Lori committed to social justice

Her parents said that from the very beginning, Lori was concerned with human rights.

In high school, she sang in school musicals, playing Mame in Auntie Mame and Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. She took a summer job at age 12 to sponsor a poor Guatemalan child, and in high school she worked at a soup kitchen.

While a student at MIT beginning in fall 1987, Lori was part of the Experimental Study Group and the Concert Choir.

According to her parents, it was an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Position in anthropology that directed her footsteps towards becoming a human rights activist. She became involved with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, a leftist human rights group through work with Martin Diskin, a professor of anthropology who passed away in fall of last year. She took an intensive Spanish course and went back to El Salvador as soon as she could, studying Spanish and monitoring human rights efforts for two months.

When she came back, she quit MIT and went to work for CISPES full-time. "It was clear," said Geoffrey Herzog, a CISPES staff member who met her that summer, "that she was very moved by the situation there and wanted to commit herself to defend human rights in Central America."

In 1990, she moved to Nicaragua and a year and a half later she proceeded to El Salvador. A few years later, she moved to Peru after falling in love with the country.

Now, according to her parents, as Berenson continues to serve her jail sentence her hands have been deformed by the effects of the altitude and cold weather as she suffers from repeated throat infections and chronic laryngitis.

At 13,000 feet above sea level on the windswept southern Andean highland near Lake Titicaca, Yanamayo is considered one of the world's harshest prisons.

Her parents

Rhoda Berenson is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered woman who watches everything and only speaks when necessary. She showed me letters in Spanish that Lori had written to members of Congress, letters with the "approval" stamp of the Yanamayo prison guards. All correspondence in and out of the prison must be in Spanish so that the guards can read it.

Mark Berenson showed me pictures of Lori and him at MITher freshman year, and articles that her classmates had written about her in newspapers world-wide. People remember Lori, even though she didn't stay long at MIT, he said.

Over 350 MITaffiliates signed a letter to President Clinton asking him to press for a retrial on Berenson's behalf. Cambridge City Councillor Katherine Triantifillou hosted a press conference with the Berensons in Cambridge City Hall last Wednesday.

The Berensons held a vigil on the morning of Commencement and handed out white ribbons begging President Clinton to obtain a trial for Lori.

In December of last year, 55 Senators and 180 Congressional Representatives sent letters to Secretary of State Madelaine Albright calling on our government to do "everything in [its] power" to achieve justice for Lori.

However, Lori's supporters have not succeeded in obtaining a trial in an open civilian court like the treaties Peru have signed dictate.

Lori Berenson speaks out

Lori Berenson's only public statement highlighted her concern for human rights and her belief that she was innocent: "I am to be condemned for my concern about the conditions of hunger and misery which exists in this country. If it is a crime to worry about the subhuman conditions in which the majority of this population lives, then I will accept my punishment. But this is not a love of violence."

Lori said she was convicted in 1996 by a hooded judge who delivered her sentence at gunpoint. She was not allowed to be present at her trial and her lawyer was not allowed to cross-examine witnesses. She was sentenced to life in prison, the maximum sentence.

The Peruvian government has declined to comment on the Berenson case.

The Commission of International Jurists, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Committee as well as many other UN committees have all declared that Peru was acting in violation of binding international treaties it has signed governing human rights and the treatment of prisoners, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man and the American Convention on Human Rights.

For these reasons, Amnesty International has declared Lori a political prisoner.