|The Thistle||Volume 13, Number 4: June/July, 2001.|
On November 30, 1995, Lori Berenson, a then 26-year-old American citizen living in Peru, was arrested for allegedly aiding the guerilla-”terrorist” group the MRTA. She was then sentenced to life in prison by a military tribunal for treason. Now, five and a half years later, she has finally been granted a civilian retrial, which is currently in its final stages. Meanwhile, she had been imprisoned under extreme conditions in Peru’s prison system, including a maximum-security prison in the remote Andes. This long saga speaks volumes about the political climate and repression in Peru, the United States’ response to it, and the incredible commitment of one individual.
Most of the information in this article is drawn from a website maintained by Lori’s supporters, www.freelori.org, which also contains a very detailed chronology of her case. The site contains many statements on her behalf by respected human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Right Watch, as well as left-wing radical propaganda from the New York Times, Reuters, and the Boston Globe.
Lori Berenson was born in New York City to socially-conscious academic parents. She went on to attend our very own Institvte of higher learning, MIT, in the late 1980s. While here, she studied anthropology with the late Dr. Martin Diskin, studying income and land distribution in El Salvador. The 80s was a tumultuous decade in Central America, seeing civil wars, guerilla wars, “counter-insurgency” wars, military juntas, and of course Reagan’s (or maybe Bush Sr.’s and Olie North’s) illegal war in Nicaragua. Lori visited El Salvador in 1988 and returned as an exchange student in 1989. She then decided to move to Nicaragua to help the Salvadoran refugee community there, and moved to El Salvador after the January 1992 peace accords. During the peace talks, she was the private secretary of a commander of the guerilla group Farabundo Martí National Liberation.
In November 1994, Lori traveled to Peru, which was suffering from rampant poverty, political repression, and a guerilla war. To understand her present, let us gaze into Peru’s past.
Peru has historically alternated between civilian and military rule. The most recent military regime lasted from 1968 to 1980 when General Juan Velasco Alvarado overthrew elected President Fernando Belaunde Terry. Velasco undertook a “nationalist” program, imposing a harsh police state and nationalizing the fish meal, some of the petroleum, and several other industries. He was replaced by General Francicso Morales Bermudez in 1975, who softened the state’s authoritarianism and started restoring the economy. Morales presided over a return to civilian government, handing power over in 1980 to popularly-elected Belaunde Terry (who was also elected President before the 1968 coup). The economy continued to founder in the 1980s, and guerrilla movements such as the Sendero Luminoso (SL, Shining Path) and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) grew. In 1985, voters elected Alan Garcia Perez President. the hyperinflation of 1988-1990, increasing fear of the guerrillas, and corruption charges led to the election of a Japanese-Peruvian mathematician-turned-politician, Alberto Fujimori, in 1990.
Fujimori’s ten-year reign was marked by authoritarianism, economic neoliberalism, corruption, and virtual one-man rule. He won election by portraying himself as a populist, and actively campaigning in many of the country’s agrarian and rural villages. Once elected, he moved to consolidate his personal power, and brooked no opposition to his policies to fight hyperinflation, coca production, guerilla movements, and corruption. In April 1992 he staged the “auto-coup,” where he dissolved Congress and regional governments and assumed control over the judiciary, due to opposition to his “reforms.” The public, which was generally frustrated with most politicians, strongly supported these moves. He then called elections for a constitutional convention on November 1992, and his constitution was approved by an October 1993 referendum. The constitution gives the President a dominant role in Peruvian politics.
Fujimori also moved aggressively against the leftist guerilla movements, the SL and MRTA. His approach was a military one, which included the arming of the peasants. Fear not - thousands may have died as a result of these tactics, but the “terrorists” are substantially less powerful than they were before. Nonetheless, the MRTA was able to hold over 500 people hostage in the Japanese ambassador’s residence in December 1996, demanding the release of all their comrades. Peruvian commandos stormed the compound on April 22, 1997, freeing 71 of the remaining 72 hostages. One hostage, two commandos and all of the hostage-takers were killed.
Having controlled inflation and the terrorists, Fujimori won a landslide re-election in 1995. However, as the 90s progressed people began to sour of his dictatorship. Although his 1993 constitution forbids the President from holding more than 2 consecutive terms, he ran for re-election in 2000. His main opponent was Alberto Toledo, an economist and former World Bank official of Amerindian descent. The government declared that no one received a simple majority in the first round of voting, and called for a runoff between the top two vote-getters, Fujimori and Toledo. Toledo’s supporters, many of them poor and Indian, took to the streets to demand he be recognized as the rightful president, while Toledo urged Peruvians to boycott the runoff. He and many other groups allege there was massive voter fraud and corruption throughout the campaign and election.
Just as Fujimori began his 3rd term in office in July 2000, a bribery and corruption scandal broke that would force him from office. The sea of corruption that was Fujimori’s reign swirled around Vladimiro Montesinos, a “security advisor” to the President and de facto head of the National Information Service (SIN), the Peruvian CIA. Montesinos serves as an apt microcosm for many of the right-wing thugs in Latin America. In 1965 he was trained at Manual Noriega’s alma mater, the School of the Americas, a US Army training camp located in Fort Benning, Georgia, for Latin American death squads, military dictators, and other such civil servants. In 1977 he was charged with selling state secrets to the CIA and was expelled from the army. He soon returned to the circles of power, amassing a fortune as a lawyer for many of Peru’s drug traffickers and their police allies. Montesinos has been a close ally of Fujimori’s since his presidential campaign, when he defended the candidate against charges of real estate fraud.
The jig was up for Fujimori when 2700 videotapes surfaced soon after his July 2000 inauguration recording Montesinos making numerous deals, offering bribes, and speaking with associates about manipulating the media and political system. It is now widely acknowledged that Montesinos controlled most of the Peruvian military, intelligence, and security apparatus; reigned atop a mafia that permeated Peruvian business, media, and politics; and was vital to Fujimori’s repressive hold on power. He is now wanted by the Peruvian government for “drug trafficking, traffic of arms, money laundering, against the administration of justice, corruption of civil employees, usurpation of functions,” according to their wanted poster (www.mininter.gob.pe/vladimiro/english/m_wanted.htm). If you have information on his whereabouts, The Thistle strongly encourages you to go to the webpage and contact the Peruvian authorities; a $5 million rewards awaits. An excellent source of information on this protector of the Peruvian people is www.gci275.com/peru/montesinos.shtml.
Accompanying Fujimori’s shock treatment of Peru’s economy and polity was a police state. Human rights violations abounded. Civil rights, due process, and similar protections were eliminated or severely restricted. A source for much of the repression was a series of anti-terrorism measures, which basically allowed the police and prosecutors to circumvent the civilian legal system and try suspected terrorists in military courts. Out of concern for the well-being of the perpetrators of these atrocities, the Peruvian Congress in 1995 granted amnesty to those who committed human rights abuses during the war on terrorism from May 1980 to June 1995.
It is this dirty little “war on terrorism” that finally brings us back to Lori Berenson.
Back to Lori
Lori traveled to Peru in November 1994 with Panamanian architect Pacífico Castrellón. The two rented a four-story house in Lima; some rooms were rented by members of the MRTA, and the group trained and stored weapons on the fourth floor. She obtained assignments from two US publications, Modern Times and Third World Viewpoint, to write as a freelance journalist about women and poverty in Peru, and received press credentials in Lima. She was conducting research and interviews, some of them with members of the Peruvian Congress, on these issues when she was arrested in November 1995.
That same day the police raided her home, sparking a 12-hour siege and gunfight that left one officer and three rebels dead. The MRTA was allegedly planning an attack on the Peruvian Congress to demand the release of jailed members. Castrellón, who has been given a long sentence by a military court for collaborating with the rebels, has testified he was paid to build a replica of the Congress building and draw detailed maps of the surroundings. The government claims a map of the Congressional seating plan and corrections to some guerilla documents were made by Lori.
The case against Lori is mostly based on her association with members of the MRTA, and not on involvement in violence or terrorism. Lori claims she didn’t know her house was being used for MRTA training, or that MRTA members lived in some rooms. Castrellón claims that Lori entered the fourth floor (hooded) to bring members food. He also alleges that Lori introduced him to Néstor Cerpa Cartolini, a top leader of the group, in Quito, Ecuador. Lori also used Nancy Gilvonio, wife of Nestor Cerpa, as a photographer, but claims she introduced herself as a Bolivian named Rosa. Lori maintains that while she was friends with MRTA members, they all used false names and hid their involvement from her.
Over the next 39 days, Lori was held in prison, interrogated, and charged with treason (even though she isn’t Peruvian). She was eventually given a lawyer who, among other abuses, was not allowed to give her legal advice during her interrogation, was not present to hear the prosecutor’s charges, and was given 2 hours to review 2000 pages of material on Lori and 19 other defendants. Due to the anti-terrorism laws, she was tried in a military (rather than a civilian) court, where her rights were severely limited and the conviction rate was 97%. She was then put in a cell for 11 days with a severely wounded woman who was not receiving medical attention.
On January 8, 1996 Lori’s infamous “presentation” to the press was made. After the physical and emotional trauma of the last 11 days, she was brought in a room for a press conference and told she had to shout to be heard. She wasn’t even allowed to comb her hair before appearing. She lashed out against the injustices being done to her and many others, professed undying love for Peru and its people, and claimed the MRTA was not a terrorist but revolutionary group. Fujimori got a lot of mileage out of this event, which was recorded and televised (although they told her she wouldn’t be publicly presented). Lori was portrayed as a defiant gringa coming to Peru to cause trouble and help the terrorists. Her denial that the MRTA were terrorists was construed as a “confession.”
During the rest of January, Lori was convicted of treason and sentenced to life without parole in Peruvian prison. The military tribunal in terrorism cases consisted of members of the armed forces wearing hoods (allegedly to protect them and their families from guerilla retribution). Her appeals and requests for a civilian trial were all denied. Since then, she has been in prison, sometimes in the most horrid conditions. For much of her sentence, she was kept in the high-altitude, maximum-security Yanamayo prison ensconced in the bitter cold of the southern Andes. Her health suffered greatly, including circulatory and digestive problems, night blindness, and swollen hands. She was even held for 115 days in total isolation.
With the Fujimori regime trying to save itself and its image in Washington, Peru’s highest military court on 29 August 2000 nullified Lori’s conviction and gave her a civilian trial. That trial is in its final stages today, although Lori and her family aren’t very optimistic about the outcome. The Peruvian judiciary is tightly controlled by the executive branch (read: Fujimori and Montesinos, until very recently), and her new trial has still not met international standards of, for example, due process. In a 7 May 2001 interview with Reuters, Lori described her retrial as “awful,” a “show trial,” and characterized her chances of acquittal as “very difficult.”
Through all this, Lori and her family have held strong. She refuses to admit any collaboration with the MRTA, calling any involvement “unintentional” and “circumstantial.” Her parents have dedicated their lives to fighting for her release and raising awareness in the US of the conditions facing the 4000 people convicted of “terrorism” in Peru. They visit her regularly, have been present for her trial, and tour the country speaking about justice Peruvian style (including her alma mater, MIT, in the spring of 2000). They have formed the Committee to Free Lori Berenson, and have gotten a large degree of Congressional support for their cause.
However, the executive branch of the US government has proven more recalcitrant. The State Department has called her military trial unfair and a violation of her rights, and is still concerned about how much better her civilian trial is. But Washington has compelling reasons to not apply hard pressure on Fujimori for her release. The US has been friendly to his dictatorship, albeit paying lip service to how horrible the repressive, anti-democratic aspects of his reign have been. Peru has been a strong partner in the “war on drugs,” taking the strong-arm military approach that the US has advocated. In return, Peru receives more aid per capita than any other country in the hemisphere when drug-war money is included. Moreover, Fujimori has listened attentively to the neoliberal instruction of the World Bank, IMF, and the US. Thanks to Free Trade, US corporations finally enjoy a level playing field to compete with Peruvian firms for that country’s cheap labor, corrupt political system, and lax environmental standards. It is an outrageous but well-established pattern that these concerns outweigh human rights, democracy, and state oppression in American foreign policy.
There can be little doubt that a firm threat to free Lori or face withholding of American aid, or freezing of Peruvian assets, or a stoppage of arms sales to Peru, would have a powerful effect. But no one’s holding their breath.
What you can do
· Talk to family, friends, colleagues, and coworkers about the injustice suffered by Lori and thousands more in Peru.
· Write to your representatives and President Bush urging them to take action on Lori’s behalf (addresses and sample letters at www.freelori.org).
|The Thistle||Volume 13, Number 4: June/July, 2001.|