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An American in the Alcatraz of Peru

Can you imagine if someone stopped you on the street and accused you of being a terrorist? How would you defend yourself? What if you weren't even given a fair trial? This happened to one innocent American woman while she was living in Lima. Even today, she waits out her life-sentence in prison.

Lori Berenson
Lori Berenson was born and raised in New York City. After high school, she moved to Boston and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a young reporter living in Lima, she wrote about the human rights abuses of the Fujimori government. That is when the life of this young girl from the Big Apple took a drastic change for the worse. On November 30, 1995, Lori was seized on a bus headed for downtown Lima and, within weeks, she was behind bars in a freezing concrete prison cell sentenced for life without parole for "treason against the fatherland of Peru."

How does a US citizen get charged with treason in Peru? The same way so many other innocent people end up behind bars in Peru - through random administration of Fujimori's restructured judicial system. (Read my other article for more on the Peruvian government's anti-terrorist laws). Amnesty International has declared that Lori is a political prisoner, and that Peru's prosecution of her did not comply with international human rights standards (The 1996 Report on Human Rights and U.S. Security Assistance). A hooded tribunal of military officers, with no legal training, tried and condemned her; Lori was not allowed to cross-examine the government witnesses, nor to present evidence in her own defense. To condemn her, Peru had to break four binding international treaties on legal rights and even their own constitution.

Senators and Representatives from the United States Congress, Human Rights Watch/Americas, and thousands of people from all over the world have been demanding for Lori's release or at the very least for her to be given a fair trial. Yet she still sits in prison in the cold highlands of Central Peru.

The Peruvian government alleges that Lori was aiding the leftist guerrilla group the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Anti-terrorist police stormed a safe house and arrested 22 MRTA guerrillas the morning after Lori was arrested. Police say Lori provided the guerrillas, who were planning to attack Peru's Congress, with a safe house along with diagrams and detailed information on the floor plans of the Congress.

Lori with her family over four years ago
Although the government provided no evidence for any of these claims, Lori was sentenced to life, the harshest sentence allowed under Peruvian law. Although Lori might be sympathetic to some of the goals of the MRTA, such as seeking justice for the Fujimori government's human right violations, or feeding and educating the many poor people of Peru, her parents and all who knew her well vouch that she would never, ever consent to the violence with which the guerrilla group is associated.

It is true that Lori has been critical of the Peruvian government, especially of people like President Fujimori's advisors, Gen. Nicolas Hermoza and Vladimiro Montesinos, who have tortured and executed thousands of innocent Peruvians and who received payments of $50,000 a month to tip off drug lords about upcoming US counternarcotics raids. But being critical of a government doesn't make you a terrorist, does it?

The masthead from the Free Lori website
Many feel that Peru condemned Lori to make a political statement. Her arrest occurred at a time when Peru was fighting a border war with Ecuador, just after the US approved Israel's sale of Qafir jets with US-made engines to Ecuador. President Alberto Fujimori has also used Lori to increase his popularity at home. He has shown her picture on national Peruvian television to show that he is tough on crime and that he will not be "pushed around" even by the United States. He has a continuing record of harassing, imprisoning, and even executing reporters and human rights investigators.

For three years Lori sat in the notorious Yanamayo prison near Lake Titikaka in a small concrete cell with no windows while her fingers turned purple from trying to wash her clothes in the ice cold water. In October of last year she was moved to another maximum security prison outside of Arequipa where she was forced to spend 115 days in isolation. 115 days! She had no contact with anyone, not family or even other prisoners. What could a 29 year-old girl from New York have done that this government finds so threatening?

I myself just came from Lake Titikaka to Arequipa. The more I read about Lori's case, the more I am outraged. I wish I could visit her and let her know that she is not forgotten. There are thousands that want to see her freed or at least given a fair trial. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to visit her. Only her parents are allowed to visit and even then for only 30 minutes each month.

This is how all the political prisoners, charged as terrorists, are treated in Peru. They have no TV or radio and are not allowed to receive current newspapers or news from the outside world, no contact with the outside world. The prison's philosophy is that prisoners should gradually forget about the outside world, and believe that the outside world has forgotten about them.

These political prisoners need your help. They have not been forgotten and still deserve fair trials. International pressure can make a difference. Let the Peruvian and the US governments know how you feel. See the Making a Difference section.


Interview by Peter Nowak, junge Welt (Germany) with Norma Velazco, European Spokesperson for MRTA April 24, 1997. Translated by Arm The Spirit (Canada)

"American Woman Faces Bleak Life in Peru's Frigid Mountain Prison" AP News, Friday, 12 January 1996 By LYNN F. MONAHAN (Associated Press Writer)

"Peru Criticized on New Yorker's Trial"New York Times - Friday, 5 January 1996, page A6by Calvin Sims

Monica - The Land Down Under: The Silver Mines of the Cerro Rico
Team - "My Poetry Will Make Me Great": Behind the Words of Cesar Vallejo
Abeja and Kevin - The Food of the Gods: Our Poetry in Peru
Kavitha - Get Political, Go to Jail!
Making a Difference - Helping Political Prisoners in Peru

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