5 Years Later, Berenson Awaits Civilian TrialBy Shankar Mukherji
In the latest development of former MIT student Lori Berenson’s nearly five year saga in the Peruvian justice system, President Alberto Fujimori has committed to new elections in which he will not be a candidate. Though it is still unclear how this will impact Berenson’s case, it is clear that the 30 year old’s story was among the many factors which effectively toppled the Fujimori regime.
On the 17th of September, a day after a videotape surfaced showing intelligence chief Vlademiro Montesinos offering a bribe to a Peruvian congressman, Fujimori called for “new and immediate elections.” The stunning event capped two months of mounting international pressure with the intention of ending the current autocratic government’s hold on power. Sensing Fujimori’s vulnerability, supporters of the “Free Lori” campaign have redoubled their efforts to see that the human rights activist is given a fair trial and, ultimately, brought home.
On August 28, the military court system of Peru annulled Berenson’s life sentence and turned the matter over to the civilian courts, which may ultimately restore her freedom. Berenson, a U.S. citizen, was tried on charges of treason as defined in Peru’s controversial anti-terrorist legislation. Though no longer facing the “hooded” judges of the military courts, she will still have to face civilian courts which, the United States State Department believes, “do not meet internationally accepted standards of openness, fairness, and due process.”
Lori’s parents, Mark and Rhoda Berenson, have voiced similar concerns, saying in a press release that, “[We] do not believe it would be possible for Lori to get a fair trial in Peru, even though she is innocent.”
Born and raised in New York City, Lori Berenson attended the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art before coming to MIT. Attracted by the Department of Anthropology, she became a student of the late Professor Martin Diskin, an expert on land reform in Central America. She subsequently left MIT to work for the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and, in 1990, moved to Nicaragua to work in the Salvadorian refugee community. After the signing of the Accords of Chapultepec in Mexico City, ending over a decade of fighting between the Salvadorian government and guerilla forces, Lori moved to El Salvador in January of 1992.
In November of 1994, Berenson travelled to Peru, where she was fascinated by the rich indigenous history. After renting an apartment in the Lima neighborhood of San Borja, she obtained press credentials and secured assignments from two American publications, Modern Times and The Third World Viewpoint. In Peru, Lori interviewed both members of Congress and leaders of rebel movements, wanting to get a wide variety of views represented in the press. It was her work as a journalist that first brought her into contact with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), which made international headlines when it seized control of the Japanese ambassador’s residence in the Peruvian capital in December 1996.
On November 30, 1995, Lori Berenson, along with about 20 members of the MRTA, including the group’s second-in-command Miguel Rincon, was arrested after an all-night shoot out with law enforcement authorities. She was charged with “aggravated treason against the Fatherland.” The police allegedly found diagrams, notes, and weapons at a safe house which Berenson was claimed to have rented for the terrorists. Following a speedy trial presided over by a hooded, military court judge whose identity was not revealed, and in which Berenson’s attorneys were not allowed to cross-examine prosecution witnesses, she was sentenced to a life term in Yanamayo Prison, situated high in the cold Andean plateau.
Prison life for Lori was made especially difficult; for the first year she was to serve in solitary confinement, and her only outside contact was with the guard who brought her food. Appeals in January and March of 1996 were summarily rejected and even President Bill Clinton’s May 21st visit to Peru failed to further Berenson’s crusade for justice. In the mean time, however, Berenson’s cause began to attract international attention from human rights groups. In November of 1997, Berenson was awarded with the Office of Americas Peace and Justice Award “for [her] dedication and zeal in promoting peace with justice in the Americas.” Furthermore, Amnesty International initiated two “Urgent Action” letter campaigns on her behalf. In October of 1998 she was transferred to Socabaya Women’s Prison in Arequipa for medical tests.
Activists from the Reverend Jesse Jackson to MIT Institute Professor Noam Chomsky have rallied to Berenson’s cause. Lori Berenson, writes Chomsky, “eminently qualifies as a prisoner of conscience ... [and is] an inspiring symbol of countless people throughout the world who seek a measure of the freedom and rights that they deserve.” A majority of the House of Representatives and 43 Senators have sent letters to President Clinton urging him to secure the release of Berenson.
As Lori’s case enters a new critical phase, several groups are actively involving themselves in her cause. MIT’s chapter of Amnesty International is planning to host a speaker on the subject, and the Committee to Free Lori Berenson’s website (http://www.freelori.org) is registering nearly a quarter-million hits a day. Berenson’s case is expected to come before the civilian court within the next two months.