In the nearly five years since Lori Berenson’s arrest in a Peruvian police roundup, the politics and emotions swirling around her case have only intensified. In Peru in 1995, President Alberto Fujimori waved her passport on television before a secret court of hooded judges convicted her of being a ringleader of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and sent her to prison for life. This year, he attacked his election opponent for revisiting her case. In the United States, Berenson’s family and friends have waged an impassioned five-year campaign for her release from the Peruvian prison where she is being held in horrifying conditions, contending she is innocent of all charges.
On page 11, Jonathan Levi and Liz Mineo, drawing from Peruvian police records and their own research, lay out the details of Berenson’s case. The evidence is ambiguous regarding her relationship with the MRTA (a subject on which even her own attorneys appear to disagree). On the one hand, it suggests that Berenson engaged in some level of association with the group. On the other, it makes clear that Fujimori and his antiterrorist police force and hooded judiciary are guilty of concocting from whole cloth their portrait of her as a revolutionary ringleader: that she was convicted on grossly inflated charges, on the thinnest of evidence, to which she and her attorneys were not allowed to respond.
The Berenson case cannot be disentangled from Fujimori’s authoritarian and corrupt rule, most recently displayed by the government’s refusal to hold transparent elections in May. Last year Fujimori withdrew Peru from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Peru’s justice system remains marked by “arbitrary arrest, prolonged pretrial detention, lack of due process and lengthy trial delays,” according to a 1999 Human Rights Watch report. Accused terrorists continue to be tried in unreviewable military tribunals or civilian courts that defy all international standards–even though an estimated 1,500 of 5,000 “terrorist suspects” arrested between 1992 and 1997 are, according to Peru’s own official human rights agency, innocent. Peru’s draconian 1992 antiterrorism law, which paved the way for these abuses, should be repealed, and all cases of terrorism reviewed. Washington ought to work with Berenson’s attorneys to help secure her release, and human rights groups should step up pressure on the regime to free Berenson and others unfairly convicted of terrorism in Peru whose cases have drawn far less attention.
The Berenson case is about far more than freeing a dubiously convicted New Yorker from life in an Andean prison. Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru are all grappling with movements toward political pluralism, amnesty for paramilitaries and accounting for recent official crimes, but Fujimori remains committed to strongman politics, controlling the armed forces and the media. Washington, despite token protests over Berenson and the election travesty, sees Fujimori as a strategic partner in the drug war: Last year’s Peru’s infamous secret police chief received warm praise from drug czar Barry McCaffrey. The truth about Berenson, whatever it may be, is bound up with the truth about Fujimori’s Peru, and Washington’s Peru policy. Another reason to make securing justice for Lori Berenson a priority in the United States.