Whether or not Lori Berenson is guilty of collaborating with MRTA, I think few in this country, on the right or left, would contend that her trials in Peru were fair. Yes, there were two of them–the first a lightning-fast trial at gunpoint from a hooded tribunal, after which she received a life sentence for treason, and the second a civilian trial–held under the same flawed Peruvian anti-terrorism laws–in which the charge was reduced to collaboration and the sentence set at 20 years.
Even her civilian trial was presided over by a judge who had pre-judged her as a “terrorist”; and her access to her lawyer was severely limited in that civilian trial. Her lawyer, in fact, was never even given a copy of the court file in the case.
It’s true that Berenson hasn’t helped herself at times with her own strongly stated leftist views. She has steadfastly denied participation in any MRTA activities; but while she has condemned terrorism, she’s been ambiguous in her assessments of the role terrorism has played in Peru and whether violence and armed rebellion are acceptable forms of protest in general. In this country as in Peru, that’s pretty much equivalent to a guilty plea; and all that most people know of her case appears to come from news footage more than a decade ago, showing her at a press conference staged by the Peruvian government after her arrest, angrily yelling support for the MRTA. Yet, the subtleties of the case have been largely ignored, not only in Peru, but in the U.S. as well.
There is a larger issue here. Berenson was one of hundreds of young Americans, who travel abroad every year and get involved in politics and social causes in countries that have oppressive regimes and think little of niceties such as fair trials and due process. In an essay he wrote about her case, which Berenson’s parents have distributed, Nicholas Birns a senior researcher at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, asked: “Does this country’s lack of concern about the detention of Lori Berenson, one of its citizens, send a message to the young people of America that it would be wiser to stay home and keep their heads down?”
Why has so little been done to help an American citizen who was seized abroad, subjected to court “trials” that few, if any, Americans can believe were fair, and sentenced to serve the rest of her youth in harsh and degrading conditions? Why has there been so little public concern over her situation and the possible ramifications it has for other Americans abroad?
The answers to these questions may lie in a confluence of events that have made her an extreme example of someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time. First, there’s the left-wing issue. The Bush administration, which has been notoriously uninterested in Latin American politics in general, has been less than interested in helping her because she’s a leftie.
Compounding the problem of her political persuasion has been the fallout from 9/11. Her parents’ tireless efforts to build congressional support for her release might have had some effect on the administration had Osama bin Laden not attacked us and completely diverted the attention of the administration and the rest of the country from just about everything happening in Latin America and most everywhere else other than the Middle East.
Moreover, we now have precious little grounds even to criticize Peru over its repressive responses to its own terrorism problems, given the Bush administration’s own authoritarian responses to 9/11–take, for example, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which has narrowed Geneva Convention protections available to those this country has detained as possible terrorists.
And then there’s the mainstream media, which, even in this country, has done little to scrutinize the Peruvian government’s version of Berenson’s case. Despite our legal tradition of a presumption of a person’s innocence until proven guilty even if he or she expresses unpopular views, Berenson has already been convicted as a terrorist collaborator in the court of public opinion, as media critic Danny Schechter put it.
Writing for MediaChannel.org in 2000, Schechter blamed the media in both Peru and the U.S. for cementing that image of Berenson, starting from that infamous 1996 “press conference” in which she voiced her support for the MRTA.
Berenson has since backed away from her statements that day, and it appears she may have been deliberately provoked at the time by the Peruvian authorities. As she explained, she had been taken before reporters and photographers into a room with no podium or microphone and told she had to shout to be heard. She had been held up to that moment in a cell with a wounded prisoner, who had been denied treatment for several days.
It might be understandable for the media to presume Berenson to be guilty of the collaboration charge had there at least been solid evidence of her guilt. But the evidence has all been circumstantial at best. The court in her civilian trial ultimately dropped all charges against her of leadership, membership, and militant involvement with the MRTA.
Yet that lack of evidence is apparently a fine point that appears to have been lost. On October 19, 2000, for instance, CBS broadcast a piece on her on “48 Hours,” which, as Schechter noted, included an interview of her that seemed more like an interrogation. ABC’s “Prime Time Live” did a similar, hostile piece on Berenson in 1998, which also replayed footage, with little explanation, of the 1996 “press conference.”
Berenson’s last best hope for freedom before the year 2015 would seem to have been the Inter American-Court of Human Rights. And yet that organization, seemingly inexplicably, upheld her 20-year sentence in 2004, overturning a recommendation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that she not only be released from prison, but that she be compensated for wrongful suffering. The Commission had declared that Berenson’s second trial had been fraught with violations of due process.
Birns has written about the intense lobbying of the Inter-American Court against Berenson’s release by the Peruvian press and the government itself, from then President Alejandro Toledo on down. Thus, the Inter-American Court’s subsequent decision may not have been so inexplicable.
It would seem that Berenson’s last best hope of release before 2015 now lies with the application of pressure by the Bush administration on the Garcia administration in Peru. But some political pressure first needs to be applied on Bush from the grassroots here before that is ever likely to happen. With the Democrats having pried loose the Republican grip on Congress in this month’s elections, one would hope that Democratic leaders in the U.S., at least, will rediscover this case and its importance for all U.S. citizens abroad. After all, how can we argue effectively for human rights of other countries’ citizens if we don’t seem all that concerned about the rights of one of our own?
We should call Senators Kennedy and Kerry and the members of our congressional delegation and ask them to press the Bush administration to bring about Lori Berenson’s release and to show that yes, we do care about our citizens abroad.