Mark and Rhoda Berenson got the call they have been dreaming about for nearly five years. Their daughter, who is in a Peruvian prison, is going to have a new trial. The 30-year-old could conceivably fly home to New York before the new year.
Last month, Peru's top military commission voided Lori Berenson's conviction and set the course for a civilian trial. The American will be re-tried for allegedly aiding the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement in its thwarted attempt to control Peru's Congress. The charge of treason remains the same. But President Alberto Fujimori says new evidence suggests Berenson did not play a prominent role.
Berenson deserves a new trial. The young social activist and writer was sentenced to life in prison by a hooded military tribunal while a gun was held to her head. She was never allowed to cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution. Evidence was not produced to prove she was a leader of leftist rebels.
A fair and just trial may not be possible in Peru, where the American prisoner remains a symbol of Fujimori's war against the Tupac Amaru.
Peruvians have little sympathy for the woman they call "the terrorist." Bloody rebel attacks killed many innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Besides, Fujimori has a history of punishing judges who defy his wishes.
Hope rests with Fujimori's political situation. Peru receives billions of dollars more than any country in the Western Hemisphere from the United States, largely to combat drug trafficking. That relationship is strained by Fujimori's unprecedented (some would say corrupt) election to a third term. Fujimori's victory was followed by local riots, protests and the threat of U.S. sanctions.
Without the record of a public trial, we cannot say for certain that Berenson is innocent. We do know that Fujimori has exiled and imprisoned journalists who criticized his regime. A 1998 U.S. Department of State report shows more than 5,000 cases of false arrests, with many individuals being wrongly accused of links to terrorist groups.
Lori Berenson spoke out for some of the poorest people in Latin America. Those who know her best say she's a young idealist who would never resort to violence. Peru's military court says the American housed rebels and plotted to overthrow the government.
An open, internationally monitored trial would reveal the truth.
Julie Marshall is associate editor of the Daily Camera in Boulder.
Copyright 2000 SF Examiner
Lori's parents, Rhoda and Mark Berenson, respond to this article:
Impossibility for Fair Trial for Lori Berenson