Lori Berenson Mejia

Lori Berenson

Lori Helene Berenson (born November 13, 1969) is a U.S. citizen currently serving a 20-year prison term in Peru for unlawful collaboration with a terrorist organization, specifically the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, an organization which had committed numerous attacks in attempting to overthrow the government of Peru. She has been imprisoned since 1995.

In Spanish-language news reports and her trial documents, because of Spanish naming customs, Berenson is often referred to as Lori Berenson Mejía or Lori Berenson Kobeloff.

Background

Berenson was born in New York City to Rhoda Kobeloff Berenson and Mark Berenson, both college professors. After dropping out of MIT, she went to El Salvador and worked for the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), and as secretary and translator for Leonel González, a leader of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). FMLN was at that time an umbrella organization associated with various leftist guerilla organizations and the Salvadoran Communist Party and working to overthrow the Salvadoran military dictatorship. FMLN transitioned during the peace process to a become a legitimate and legal political party.

After political reconciliation came to the area, and supported by a trust fund set up by her parents, she continued her political pilgrimage by moving to Peru.

Activities in Peru and arrest

In Peru she met members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a group that had committed numerous insurgent attacks in Peru including kidnapping, bank robberies, extortion, hostage taking, and assassinations. Berenson, however, denies knowing that they were MRTA members.

Berenson rented a large house in Lima in an upscale neighborhood. Much of the house was later used as a safe house by MRTA operatives. Berenson later claimed to be unaware of the connection and to have moved out some months prior to her arrest.

With no training or publication record as a journalist, she obtained press credentials for herself and her photographer to the Congress of Peru. Berenson represented that she was writing articles on the effect of poverty on women in Perú for two now defunct left-leaning New York publications, Modern Times and Third World Viewpoint. Her photographer, Nancy Gilvonio, was actually the wife of Néstor Cerpa, the MRTA second-in-command — although Berenson claims she was unaware of this connection and claimed that she knew her only as a Bolivian photographer. Berenson had entered the main Congress building with Gilvonio several times during 1995 to interview members of Congress. Gilvonio provided the information she collected to the MRTA including detailed information on the floor plans of Congress, its security and members. The plan was for the MRTA to invade the Congress building, kidnap the legislators, and overthrow the legitimate government.

On November 30, 1995, Berenson and Gilvonio were arrested on a public bus in downtown Lima. Berenson was accused of collaborating with the MRTA, which had been officially classified as a terrorist group by the government. Berenson was seized from a public bus hours before an all-night siege of the MRTA safe house which had been rented by Berenson, in which three MRTA guerrillas and one police officer died and 14 guerrillas were captured. The safe house was found to contain an "arsenal of weapons. Diagrams, notes, weapons, and police and military uniforms found at the safe house suggested that the group was planning to seize members of Congress and trade them for captured guerrillas. Police also seized a floor plan of the Congress building from the safe house. After being taken to the house siege, in which Berenson claims she was used as a human shield by the Peruvian police, both women were taken to the National Counter Terrorist Division of Peru.

On January 8, 1996, the DINCOTE (División Nacional Contra el Terrorismo, or National Counter Terrorist Division) hosted a news event in which they showed Berenson to the press. At the event, she stated that the MRTA was not a criminal terrorist organization (despite its violent record) but instead a "revolutionary movement". Her statement and the vehement way in which she delivered it alienated many Peruvians against her.

Trials

In accordance with anti-terrorism legislation enacted during a state of emergency declared by President Alberto Fujimori, Berenson was tried in a closed courtoom by a military tribunal on a charge of treason against the fatherland. This charge did not require Peruvian citizenship as an element. The proceedings were conducted by a hooded military judge who spoke through a voice distortion apparatus (judges often concealed their identities to protect themselves from MRTA reprisal killings). Guns were held to the heads of the accused, including Berenson, and no lawyers were present. On January 11, 1996, six weeks after her arrest and three days after her presentation to the media, Berenson was sentenced to life in prison. An appeal lodged against the conviction was dismissed on January 30.

In 2000 many of Peru's anti-terrorism laws were declared unconstitutional, and about 2,000 cases were overturned and retrials in civilian courts ordered. Berenson's case retrial was by a three judge court during a months-long trial beginning on August 28, 2000.

On June 20, 2001, she was sentenced to 20 years, with consideration given for time already served under her prior conviction, for the lesser crime of "collaboration with a terrorist organization." She is scheduled for release in 2015, after which she is to be deported from Peru.

Efforts to free Berenson

In 1998, Amnesty International issued a press release declaring Berenson to be a political prisoner Amnesty criticized the Peruvian anti-terrorism legislation, stating that, "it is unacceptable for hundreds of political prisoners like Berenson not to be able to exercise their basic human right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal."

On July 21, 1999, the United States House of Representatives voted against an amendment to express the sense of Congress that the U.S. should increase support to democracy and human rights activists in Peru, and that it should use all diplomatic means to get the government of Peru to release Berenson. The vote failed 189 to 234.

In 1996, an apparent effort was made to free Berenson by less conventional means, as the MRTA seized the Japanese Ambassador's residence in Lima, and issued a list of prisoners they demanded be released in exchange for the release of their hostages. Berenson was third on the list. After 126 days, the standoff ended in a daring, well-planned raid by the Peruvian special forces in which all hostage takers were killed at the loss of two military personnel and only one of the seventy-two hostages.

Writers from influential publications, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, have written editorials calling the US to pressure Peru to free Berenson. Her parents had a short independent film made in protest against her earlier military trial, and her story has been reported on several top television news shows.

In a radio interview recorded in prison in 2001, Berenson stated that she might have originally avoided prison if she had been willing to denounce MRTA as a terrorist organization. This she refused to do on principle, she stated, making a distinction between "terrorism" and what she described as MRTA's legitimate "revolutionary" action.

In 2002, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States voted 7 - 0, to condemn the system under which Berenson was tried. Alleging violations of the American Convention on Human Rights, to which Peru is a party, Berenson's case was referred to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

On November 25 2004 the Inter-American Court upheld the conviction and sentence by a vote of six to one. The Court did condemn the judicial system under which Berenson was originally tried, and also condemned Berenson's earlier incarceration at Yanamayo Prison.

While many of Berenson's supporters condemned the Court's ruling, Amnesty International conceded that she had finally had a fair hearing. The case is now effectively closed and there is no real chance Berenson will get out early (unless she is awarded a presidential pardon, which is deemed unlikely). Her parents continue to work for her release and their website has provided regular updates on Berenson's situation through early 2008.

Imprisonment

Berenson spent her early years in prison at facilities high in the Andes, some of which the Inter-American Court ruled are operated inhumanely. The Yanamayo prison where Berenson was initially held for several years lies at 12,000 feet (3650 m) above sea level near Lake Titicaca in the Puno Region, in southern Peru.

On 7 October 1998 Berenson was moved to another prison in Socabaya. She remained there until 31 August 2000, when she was transferred to the women's prison of Chorrillos in Lima. Then, on 21 December 2002, she was relocated to the maximum-security Huacariz Penitentiary in Cajamarca, 350 miles (560 km) north of Lima.

In October 2003, Berenson married Aníbal Apari Sánchez, 40, who, because of legal impediments (he is a convicted MRTA member who has since been released), was not present in the wedding and had to be represented by his father. The marriage shocked some of her supporters and confirmed to her critics that she had ties to the terrorists. Apari Sánchez met Berenson in 1998, while both served prison sentences for terrorism in the Yanamayo jail. On 16 September 2008, her father announced that she was pregnant with her first child.

In December 2005, Berenson was being allowed to work at the prison bakery at the Huacariz prison, making panetones, a type of fruitcake. In February 2002, she joined a fourteen-day hunger strike of "political prisoners" in an attempt to influence the governments of Peru and the United States; the strike ultimately failed. After her arrest, her parents initiated an energetic campaign to free their daughter, recruiting famous left-wing activists such as Ramsey Clark and Noam Chomsky. Now, through her website page entitled "The Writings of Lori Berenson," Berenson issues commentaries to the public, including advice to youth, and advocacy against the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, capitalism, globalism, pollution caused by mining corporations, the United States, the U.S. National Guard, the Cable News Network (CNN), President Alan Garcia of Peru, Peruvian author Mario Vargas, Peruvian "windbags," and Peru's "political class. She also published a short statement in 2006 critical of the "American Way of Life." In addition, her commentaries are read on Prison Radio. While in prison, Berenson has openly allied herself with MRTA inmates.

Berenson has received little or no support among the Peruvian public, including native human rights groups. Today, Berenson is largely forgotten in Peru; nevertheless, despite the long years behind bars, Berenson expresses defiance, saying that she sees herself, as her family and supporters do, as a political prisoner -- in their view, a martyr to progressive thinking:

"Although what I can do is limited, by not cowering to the system of injustice I continue to be a headache to those who promote injustice."

Her sentence will be completed in 2015 and she will be released from prison and deported from Peru at that time if she commits no further crimes. She is eligible for parole after fifteen years, in 2010.

References

External links

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