Lori Berenson, the 31-year-old American activist convicted last week and sentenced to 20 years in prison for collaborating with leftist guerillas in Peru, has been the subject of a lot of torrid hyperbole since her arrest in 1995.
The presiding judge in her civilian trial (she was first convicted in 1996 by an anonymous, hooded military tribunal, but it was overturned in August), Marcos Ibazeta publicly asserted her guilt before her trial. He also told reporters that it was incumbent upon her to prove her innocence, rather than for prosecutors to prove her guilt, as is supposedly required by the Peruvian constitution.
Victimized by more than one leftist rebel group, including the Sendero Luminoso and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (or MRTA, the group Berenson helped according to the Peruvian government), many Peruvians simply call her "the terrorist."
But here's all the civilian court found her guilty of: renting a house in which MRTA terrorists plotted a takeover of the Peruvian congress and using false identification to pose as a journalist, charges collectively described as "terrorist collaboration." She was acquitted on charges of being an active rebel militant.
Berenson has unwaveringly claimed innocence, saying she did not know MRTA rebels were using the house to stage an attack and demonstrating that she was a credentialed journalist working for two U.S. publications. Yet Berenson is not stupid, and we suspect she knew more than she's let on.
In some ways, it's a wonder that Berenson got a civilian trial at all. Pressure from powerful voices in the U.S. Congress helped, as did the collapse of corrupt former President Alberto Fujimori, who fled in November.
Following last week's conviction, the U.S. Embassy in Lima, which lobbied Peru to overturn Berenson's clearly unfair conviction and give her a civilian trial, has (rather tepidly, it seems to us) acknowledged that she has now received a fair trial.
But Berenson has strongly protested the conviction, and her parents have blasted it as preordained. They now hold out slim hope that the harsh 20-year sentence will be overturned on appeal, or that incoming president Alejandro Toledo will pardon her.
We have long stood in Berenson's corner, calling for a civilian trial while making clear that her guilt or innocence would have to be proved in a civilian court. She's now received a civilian trial it's difficult to judge how fair from afar and she's already served five years in a harsh Peruvian prison.
Given the nature of the charges ostensibly proved last week, we think that's time enough. She clearly was not the ringleader Peruvian authorities have long claimed (Ibazeta once ludicrously described her as "the sun around which MRTA revolved"), and sending her back to prison for another 15 years is unjustifiably harsh. It's time to send her home, and stop making one foreign woman pay for the very real crimes of violent rebels over 10 years. We urge President George W. Bush to ask Toledo to find a way to do so during the Peruvian president-elect's visit to the U.S. this week.
One final, corollary observation: Isn't it odd that "allies" of leftist causes from El Salvador to Chile have long suffered the heavy hand of prosecution, harassment, torture and imprisonment, while those who have stood by right-wing paramilitaries, or even trained them (as U.S. military forces have done) are rarely brought to similar account.
Copyright 2001 The Daily Camera