In Defense of Lori Berenson

by Mark Berenson / July 2005

My daughter Lori has been wrongfully incarcerated in Peru since the night of Nov. 30, 1995, when she was arrested on a public bus in Lima. She has been a victim of injustice on three occasions: First, by a draconian Peruvian justice system that had received worldwide condemnation, second by a Peruvian propaganda machine that made her into the symbol of a “terrorist monster,” and third by an international court that caved into political pressure.

In January 1996, Lori was sentenced by a hooded military tribunal (now deemed illegal) to life in prison for treason against the Fatherland—while a hooded soldier held a gun to her head.

When the Supreme Council of Military Justice was provided with evidence to show she was not a leader of a subversive group, the charge forming the basis for treason against the Fatherland, the charge and the sentence were annulled and her case remanded to the civilian court system.

The civilian trial contained numerous violations of due process and was led by a judge who had prejudiced himself against Lori in the press two years earlier as well as in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais (April 22, 2001) during her trial. Nevertheless, this judge refused to recuse himself.

On June 20, 2001, Lori was convicted of collaboration and given a 20-year sentence, which was upheld in February 2002.

Once all judicial remedies were exhausted within Peru, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which had been studying Lori’s case since January 1998, unanimously ruled (7 to 0) in April 2002 that Peru’s anti-terrorism laws failed to comply with the American Convention on Human Rights and needed to be thoroughly changed and that Lori’s rights needed to be totally restored.

Although one month earlier (March 22, 2002) President Bush and Secretary of State Powell raised Lori’s case with Peruvian President Toledo on a visit to Lima and urged Peru to use the anticipated forthcoming decision of the Inter-American Commission as a mechanism for providing a humanitarian resolution, when the ruling was announced the Peruvian government balked, forcing the Inter-American Commission to take Lori’s case to the Inter-American Court. A Court decision was binding on Peru, a Commission decision was not.

The position of the Bush administration was that Peru had the right to be heard in the Court. In November 2002, the Inter-American Court accepted the case of the Inter-American Commission against Peru. For two years we waited, hoping and expecting real justice – never considering that this highest legal body in the Western Hemisphere would capitulate to political pressure. But it did.

The “bottom line” is that on Nov. 25, 2004, my daughter Lori was sacrificed by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which abrogated its fundamental responsibility of protecting individual rights in order to placate the inept, unpopular, corrupt, but nevertheless fledgling democratic government of Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo.

The Toledo administration, backing off on its commitment to the Organization of American States and to the Bush administration, as well as to us, that it would abide by the ruling of the Inter-American Court, put enormous political pressure on that international body by declaring it would simply ignore any decision favorable to Lori and also by threatening to withdraw from the Court’s jurisdiction.

Anticipating a Court ruling for Lori’s freedom, which, evidently, was the Court’s intention based on its preliminary deliberations and analysis as of Nov. 10, Peruvian politicians who seemingly never agree on anything united against Lori and roused the public against the Court by calling it “soft on terrorism” – words that could only embarrass this highest legal body of the Organization of American States in our “post-9/11” global campaign against
terrorism.

Rather than be rendered powerless by a disgruntled member country, the Court, instead, immorally reversed its own position over the past 12 years and overruled the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which had unanimously declared that Lori’s civilian trial, like her earlier military trial, failed to provide fairness and due process, that the Peruvian court failed to establish guilt in accordance with its own Constitution, that Peru must bring its draconian anti-terrorism laws into compliance with international standards, and that Lori must receive moral, psychological and monetary indemnification for her wrongful suffering.

The capitulation of the Inter-American Court to Peruvian political pressure is a stain on fundamental human rights and on the protection that citizens in the Western Hemisphere deserve. These words have been articulated by Javier Valle Riestra, former prime minister of Peru, and by Waldo Albarracin Sanchez, current ombudsman of Bolivia. And the lack of logic expressed in the Inter-American Court’s ruling is documented in the dissenting opinion provided by Chilean Judge Cecilia Medina Quiroga, the only judge who maintained her integrity in the 6 to 1 vote.

My daughter Lori remains in prison today simply because she is a U.S. citizen. Her high-profile and her highly politicized case began moments after her arrest when then President Fujimori waived her passport on Peruvian television, something he did not do with passports of detainees from Panama, Bolivia, or Chile. Fujimori decided to “make an example” out of Lori as a warning to others who might venture to Peru and speak the truth about his dictatorship thinly veiled as a democracy.

To this day, Lori claims she is innocent of the charges for which she was convicted in both her military trial (treason against the Fatherland of Peru for the role of leadership in a subversive group) and later civilian trial (collaboration with terrorism). The Fujimori-Montesinos-controlled media fabricated many horrendous stories about Lori, a few of which she was actually “accused” of in her trial.

Nevertheless, in her civilian trial she was convicted only as a “secondary accomplice,” but this forms part of the charge of collaboration with terrorism—the minimum sentence for which is 20 years. Lori was acquitted of the role of leadership that formed the basis of her military trial conviction. She was also acquitted of both membership in a subversive group and militancy in a subversive group.

Lori was never involved in any act of violence, in Peru or elsewhere, and was never accused of such. In reviewing her civilian trial sentence in February 2002, Guillermo Cabala, then president of Peru’s Supreme Appeals Court, argued he did not agree with the conviction for collaboration—he did not think that the charge was proved. He argued that “Lori Berenson is not a terrorist and has not committed a terrorist act,” and he opined that Lori should have been convicted on a lesser charge with a much lower sentence.

Peruvian justice, based on the Napoleonic system of proving innocence, is foreign to our judicial culture. To me, it is often incomprehensible. In Peru, murders, rapists, kidnappers, violent offenders, and armed robbers receive short sentences and are back in the streets on average in five years.

Readers can form their own opinion about Lori by reading her own words, which speak for themselves. They can visit the website http://www.freelori.org in English (click on “In Lori’s Words”) or http://www.lorilibre.org in Spanish (click on “Escritos de Lori”).