Published on Monday, December 4, 2000 in the Guardian of London
'Lori is No Terrorist ...
She's Guilty of Speaking Loudly for the Poor'
Jailed American's parents fight to free her from Peruvian prison
by Michael Ellison in New York
Mark Berenson could see no reason to decline when he was invited to take part in an academic conference in Peru. As a professor of statistics and the author of several standard works on his subject, there was nothing to stop him.
Nothing, that is, except his daughter Lori. "She wouldn't let me go. She said: 'It's too dangerous, you'll stand out like a tall American and they'll shoot you first and ask the questions second.' So I didn't go."
He didn't, but some time later she did. Now his 30-year-old daughter has been living in a prison cell for the past five years.
Peru says that Lori Berenson is a guerrilla, guilty of treason. Her parents, Mark and Rhoda, say that she is being used as a symbol of Peru's commitment to crushing terrorism and its determination to stand up to the United States. Each of them has visited her about 40 times in the past two years, every round trip costing $1,400.
The Berensons live in a pleasant flat in Gramercy Park, Manhattan, the very picture of liberal respectability. The sitting room, which opens on to a terrace, contains four chess sets, a gallery of family photographs and an L-shaped sofa inhabited by a large brown teddy bear.
But this image of decent lives spent as college professors - Mrs Berenson taught physics - is shattered by the Free Lori Berenson posters spilling out of cardboard boxes in one corner of the room and the letters of support for their daughter scattered on a glass-topped table.
Both parents retired early so that they could concentrate on trying to win Lori's freedom. Now her 58-year-old father has time for little else, and Rhoda Berenson can switch off just long enough to read a book on her frequent flights. He seethes and erupts, she maintains a shoulder-shrugging mock bemusement.
"I used to think of myself as a caring person," Mr Berenson says, waving away arguments and counting off indignities on his fingers. "But I was a couch potato and I have to be honest and say: 'Would I have personally been there for someone else's daughter?'"
Rhoda, 57, might have been. Just as the Berensons rely on the support of others now, she was involved previously in Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Lori Berenson was clever at school - everybody's favourite, says her father; never a rebel, says her mother - and her classmates included the actress Jennifer Aniston and Chastity Bono, Cher's daughter. But the young Lori was less interested in nascent celebrity than in developing her social conscience. At 14 she recorded a voiceover for the international relief agency Care and when she went to college became active in Latin-American causes.
She visited Nicaragua and made two more trips to Central America before dropping out of school and into what she considered real life. She went to El Salvador in 1992 and then, two years later, Peru, where she intended to work as a journalist.
There she moved into a house in Lima where her fellow occupants included members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).
Mrs Berenson says: "She has leftist ideological views that she shares, sometimes parallel to MRTA, but she's not a person who believes in violence and terrorism."
It is an evaluation sharply at variance with that of the Peruvian government. The police raided the house on November 30 1995, and by next day one person was dead, three were badly wounded, four hostages were freed and 21 alleged members of MRTA were under arrest.
Elsewhere in the city there was a general sweep for suspects. Lori Berenson, who by this time had moved out of the house, was arrested on a bus and six weeks later received a life sentence for treason, plotting to attack the Peruvian congress, transporting weapons, and instructing militants. She was convicted by masked military judges who considered evidence kept secret from her lawyer.
Now her sentence has been overturned, clearing the way for a new trial in an open civilian court on the lesser charge of terrorism, probably at the end of this month.
"The script is in, it's 20 years," says Mark Berenson. His wife sees more reason for hope, especially since President Alberto Fujimori decamped to Japan after his right-hand man was filmed passing a bribe to a Peruvian congressman three months ago.
"I think it certainly looks good for Peru," Mrs Berenson says. "The problem for Lori is that she's in the middle of a trial based on laws put in place by the old regime. She's still in a situation where she hardly gets to see her lawyer and hasn't been able to put together a defence for that reason.
"It looks good for the future but Lori is still in the present. She's still the symbol."
The Berensons differ on points of emphasis but are solid on the matter of their daughter's innocence. "Sure she is," says Mr Berenson. "Oh definitely, definitely," says his wife. "Yes, she's guilty of speaking loudly and arguing for the poor."
This last reference is to the fixed image the most Peruvians have of Lori Berenson as a raving leftie, which goes some way towards explaining the lack of support there for the campaign to free her. She was filmed at the time of her trial railing against poverty and shouting: "There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA. It is a revolutionary movement."
Her parents say that this was because she had spent days listening to the suffering of a mistreated fellow prisoner.
The Berensons say they have good pensions - and they need them. They have spent more than $700,000 in support of their daughter, of which just under $100,000 came from donations. The couple were too bashful to raise money until Lori's third year in jail.
Ever the statistician, Mr Berenson rattles through the precise levels of support in the US Congress: broadly, they are backed by nearly all the Democrats and nowhere near as many Republicans.
Mrs Berenson, too, makes use of her skills; she recently published a book about the case. "And now I have nothing to do," she says sarcastically.
Her husband agrees: "She has nothing to do. Nothing to do."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000