American jailed in Peru should be freed

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By Rick Howell

    In a jail cell in Lima, Peru, a 39-year-old American woman waits to give birth to her child. She’s eight months pregnant, but is not in particularly good health, and must have back surgery at some point after the birth.

    For American Lori Berenson, most of those facts represent progress. The baby, of course, is good news. So is the modern, well-equipped facility in Lima, unlike the other remote and rustic prisons where she has lived since 1995.

    Most Americans haven’t heard of this native New Yorker’s tragic plight, but everyone should know about it. An injustice was done to an innocent person, but now, under the new administration of President Barack Obama, and due to her own personal situation, Berenson could soon be free.

    Lori Berenson was working as a journalist in Peru in 1995. She was 26 years old. Sympathetic to the plight of the poor in that country, and fascinated by Peruvian politics, Berenson carried press credentials for two New York-based magazines.

    Peru at that time was a violent political battlefield between right-wing President Alberto Fujimori and two leftist rebel groups, the notorious Shining Path guerillas, and MRTA, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Front.

    Both groups resorted to kidnapping and murder, while Fujimori used authoritarian tactics and exploited politically his own “war on terror” at every opportunity.

    In December of ’95, police claimed that they’d uncovered a MRTA plot to attack and bomb the Peruvian Congress building in Lima. A gun battle ensued in the streets of the capital between police and MRTA guerillas.

    Later, according to police, one of the MRTA fighters who survived the battle implicated a young American women in the plot. Lori Berenson was pulled off a bus in Lima a day or so later and arrested, officially accused of  “terrorism.”

    Hurled almost instantly before a military tribunal, in front of judges who wore hoods, Berenson was convicted on the thinnest of circumstantial evidence and given a life sentence. There was never any hard evidence that Berenson knew of or was aware of any alleged plot for bombing the Congressional building. Her name was given by someone who was probably tortured, and the Peruvian authorities had an American out of whom they could make an example.

    Back home, all of her friends and family knew that she would never endorse any violent solution to political problems. Violence was simply not an option for her.

    Her parents, Mark and Rhoda Berenson, formed the “Committee to Free Lori Berenson” and began lobbying Clinton administration officials to press for her release. But in September of 2001, the terrorist attacks in this country effectively ended any chance for Berenson to be released. She’d been unfairly labeled a “terrorist” herself. The Bush administration basically forgot about her.

    Her sentence was eventually reduced to 20 years after she finally got a civilian trial. She became a model prisoner, and married a Salvadoran man a few years ago. Her health has suffered in prison, mainly because of back problems.

    Her family and friends are now making a new effort with the Obama administration to get her paroled. She’s served 13 of the 20 years, and her health is not good.

    Lori Berenson may have been naïve; she may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. She is not, however, and never was, a terrorist.

    Visit the committee’s Web site at www.freelori.org You can read more details about her arrest, trial and imprisonment. You can also find new ways to help her get released.

    Remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It’s time to end the injustice that was done to Lori Berenson. She should finally be set free.

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    Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.