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U.S. Continues Demand for Fair Trial for Berenson

By Dan McGuire

The U.S government will continue to insist that Lori Berenson, a former MIT student, receive a fair, civilian trial, U.S. Ambassador to Peru Dennis C. Jett announced.

Berenson, 29, was a sophomore in the anthropology and archaeology section of the humanities department when she withdrew from the Institute in 1988. She was charged with high treason by a secret Peruvian military tribunal and sent to prison in January of 1996.

Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori charged that Berenson aided members of the Marxist TÚpac Amaru Resistance Movement (MRTA), who were planning an attack on Congress.

Her family has said that she is innocent and that she was working as a journalist in Peru at the time of her arrest.

Reiteration of long-held policy

The State Department has avoided involving itself specifically in the Berenson case, but it has condemned the fact that Berenson was not tried in a civilian court. “She deserves a new process in a civilian court so that she has a chance to defend herself,” Jett said.

A State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity called Jett’s announcement a “reiteration of long-held U.S policy... We continue to believe that Lori Berenson did not receive a fair trial,” the official said. “She was tried before a military court and was not allowed to see the evidence against her,” he added.

Lori Berenson “continues to be a sticking point on our bilateral agenda,” the official said.

The official said that the announcement was prompted in part by the fact that Jett is preparing to conclude his tenure as the American Ambassador to Peru. Jett raised Berenson’s status in his final discussions with Peruvian officials.

The U.S. recently found support for its position in the Organization of American States, whose Inter-American Human Rights Court unanimously declared that everyone tried by Peru’s military tribunals should be retried in civilian courts.

Berenson is being held in Socabaya prison, 465 miles southeast of Lima. State Department officials visiting her have described conditions there as “grim.”

Peruvian official defends case

Juan del Campo, the spokesman for the Peruvian embassy in Washington, D.C., defended Berenson’s trial, saying that it had taken place “within the boundaries of contemporary international law.”

Del Campo, who serves as First Secretary for Press and Politics for the embassy, said that the system of military tribunals had been created to combat rebel groups like the Shining Path and the TÚpac Amaru Resistance Movement, who intimidated civilian judges to get lenient sentences.

“When we imposed this system it started working,” said del Campo. Terrorism is no longer much of a problem, he added, although the legislation which sets up the tribunals has yet to be repealed.

He said that a civilian retrial of Berenson was not planned, but added that an independent commission, set up two years ago by the government to review the cases put before the military tribunal, was willing to review Berenson’s case.

“In this very difficult situation, mistakes were made by the military tribunals,” he said. Thus far, the commission has released 500 people who were falsely imprisoned, he said. Berenson has not yet submitted her case to the commission, he said.

Del Campo said that disagreements over Berenson’s fate had not adversely affected ties between the U.S. and Peru. “We have very good relations with the U.S.,” he said, “We are cooperating in” a number of initiatives, he said.

MIT students help Berenson

MIT students have mobilized to protest Berenson’s treatment. A forum was held in 1996 to discuss the case. Supporters also brought their case before President Bill Clinton when he spoke at the 1998 Commencement proceedings. They placed an advertisement containing an open letter to Clinton in the Commencement issue of The Tech. The letter was signed by students, faculty, and staff.

Campus organizations have also pushed Berenson’s case. “The MIT chapter of Amnesty International, as with the official international organization, is all for allowing Lori to have an open and fair civilian trial,” said Amnesty International member Douglas K. Wyatt ’96. “Hopefully... Lori can prove as she has stated before that she did not provide material assistance to the MRTA.”

Neena S. Kadaba ’02 contributed to the reporting of this article.