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Peru Voids Berenson Sentence

Military Tribunal’s Decision Opens Way for New Civilian Trial

By Naveen Sunkavally

EDITOR IN CHIEF

Former MIT student Lori Berenson, who has been serving a life sentence in Peru after a treason conviction nearly five years ago, may be a step closer to returning home. Peru’s military tribunal has recently revoked her life sentence, allowing for a possible civilian trial.

“Peru has finally admitted that Lori did not commit treason,” said Gail Taylor, of the Commitee to Free Lori Berenson in Washington, D.C.

In an press release, MIT President Charles M. Vest said, “We hope that [Lori] is freed on bail while she awaits trial, or at least is moved to a less isolated prison where the conditions are more humane and she has greater access to her family and attorneys.”

Development is surprising

Berenson was sentenced to life imprisonment in January 1996 in a secret military trial for allegedly conspiring with the leftist Tupac Amaru movement to plan an attack Peru’s congress.

The reversal of her conviction is surprising, considering the Peruvian government’s strong stance under President Alberto K. Fujimori that she serve out her sentence.

James Williamson, a Cambridge community activist and long-time proponent of Berenson’s release, said that the development may have been a political expedient, as well as a result of a strong grassroots movement to free her.

“I think that this is the result of the persistent pressure that was brought to bear by the movement that was developed in support of Lori,” Williamson said. “My own speculation is that the Peruvian government was weakened by election fraud [charges]... and maybe the Fujimori government [wanted] to soften its image.”

David M. Matheu G, co-president of MIT’s Amnesty International chapter, speculated that the development is the result of Peru needing economic assistance from the United States. “My guess is it’s politically expedient to make friends,” he said. “ I do know that many grassroots activists have campaigned for the U.S. to not fund Peru.”

Activists are cautiously optimistic

Despite the development, community activists aren’t convinced that the new civilian trial will lead to Berenson returning to the United States.

“It’s exciting news,” Williamson said, but added that “people don’t get fair trials in Peru.” Williamson said that he hoped that the international spotlight would help Berenson receive a fair trial.

Berenson’s parents, Rhoda and Mark Berenson, who two years ago made a plea for their daughter’s release in a press conference that coincided with President Clinton’s MIT commencement address, have said that Berenson must be returned home immediately. “It is not possible under present conditions for Lori Berenson to have a fair trial in Peru,” they said in a press release.

“She has been imprisoned in Peru for four years and nine months under cruel, inhumane, and degrading conditions without justification.... Due process requires that after four years and nine months without a proper trial Lori must be released,” they said.

Matheu described Berenson’s entire ordeal as a “miscarriage of justice” and said, “I think it’s time to release her.”

Continuing the campaign

Tomorrow, the Berensons will be appearing on the Oprah Wimphrey show to support their daughter’s release.

MIT’s Amnesty International chapter is planning an information session soon, Matheu said. This past April, Amnesty International and the MIT Social Justice Cooperative held a forum with Rhoda and Mark Berenson.