Socialist Action spoke recently with Kristen Gardner, a spokesperson of the Free Lori Berenson committees. She was a college roommate of Berenson, who was jailed three years ago in Peru on charges of being linked to the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). She has been playing a leading role in building the campaign for Lori’s release.
Socialist Action: What was Lori doing in Peru?
Kristen Gardner: She was doing journalism down there, writing about the treatment of women, among other things.
SA: What reason did the government give for arresting her?
KG: They charged her with “treason to the fatherland,” which is considered “aggravated terrorism.”
SA: How could she be a traitor to a country that is not hers?
KG: Fujimori [the Peruvian president] tends to want to make the maximum charges against foreigners arrested in connection with terrorism. This creates prejudice in the public, in the courts, and in prison.
Had she been charged with just terrorism, as a Peruvian would have been, for what they said she did, she would have been tried in a civilian court. Treason charges are tried in military courts. That put her case in a court with a 97 percent conviction rate. Many of these judges are just military officers, without legal training. They are more directly controlled by the government.
SA: What actions did they charge her with?
KG: Being a leader of a militaryorganization, giving information for an attack, and leading an armed group within an organization. She’s not a member of the MRTA. She did not know anything about these so-called plans.
The only evidence was guilt by association. She did know some MRTA people socially, without really knowing anything about them. One woman had been recommended to her as a photographer, and she turned out to be a member of the MRTA.
SA: So, why did the government arrest her?
KG: Fujimori has been anxious to isolate Peru from any international involvement in the human rights situation in the country.
The human-rights group down there told us that they have never been able to make any difference in the human rights situation in the country. The only thing that produces anything is international pressure.
SA: What was her sentence?
KG: Life. And this means literally “life.”
SA: What is the state of her defense in Peru?
KG: Her parents went down and found a lawyer to take on her case. There are very few lawyers who will take on political cases, because many lawyers have been arrested and charged with terrorism for defending people accused of terrorism.
The only lawyers who were ready to defend her had previously defended political prisoners. Some people said that by choosing that lawyer she linked herself to the terrorist milieu, but she had no other choice. Her lawyer has already taken the case through all the possible appeals.
What the U.S. embassy is pushing now is that she should appeal to the Pardons Commission, in which Fujimori has the final say. Because she said she knew people in the MRTA socially, the Pardons Commission said that it would not touch her case.
The Commission is actually an obstacle. She has appealed to the Organization of American States. But they say they will not touch it until she has completed all possibilities for appeal. Yet there is still the fiction that she could appeal to the Pardons Commission.
SA: So, the only possibility is an international campaign, essentially aimed at the U.S. government?
KG: Yes. Fujimori has said that he will not pay any attention to OAS protests. I think the United States can push him, but the U.S. embassy claims that it cannot. The embassy said to keep a low profile. For the first two years, that’s what the parents did. But it’s been three years, and there is no sign of any movement.
So, the people working on Lori’s behalf here met in January and decided to step up our efforts to educate the American public about this case, to build up pressure.
We had our first delegation to Peru, including Amy Goodman from KPFA radio. The fact that we got to see Lori has aroused attention in the media, so we are hoping that more people will get involved in the campaign.
There is a national Free Lori Berenson Committee and a number of local committees. You can contact us on the World Wide Web at www.freelori.org.