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Review All Cases, Not Just Berenson's

September 01, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI and LIZ MINEO | Jonathan Levi, a co-founder of Granta, is the author of "A Guide for the Perplexed" (Turtle Bay, 1992). Liz Mineo was an investigative reporter for Lima's El Comercio before moving to the United States

Last Monday, Peru's Supreme Court of Military Justice voided the life sentence of Lori Berenson, convicted as a ringleader of the Peruvian guerrilla force Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, and turned the case over to the civilian courts. A few days before, the Nation magazine printed a story of ours urging just such a civilian review. As journalists, we were overjoyed. Quickly, we found out we were alone.

In Peru, journalists, politicians and civilians shouted out a common question: Why is an American woman getting special treatment while Peruvians convicted of terrorism by the same military courts are languishing in prison?

Until recently, according to her parents, this brand of special treatment would have made Berenson herself angry. Initially she wanted to be treated like all other prisoners. Over the four-and-a-half years of her imprisonment, however, Berenson and her parents became convinced that Peru was treating her differently from other convicted terrorists--as a political tool in its relationship with the United States.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Berenson's parents and her American lawyers complained for very different reasons. Citing prejudicial statements by high-ranking Peruvian politicians, they claimed it was impossible for Berenson to receive an impartial trial in Peru. Quoting the U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report of February this year, they said that the mechanisms for trying citizens "for terrorism in civilian courts do not meet internationally accepted standards of openness, fairness and due process."

In a sense, they are correct. In Peru, the judiciary is not independent from the executive. Civilian courts usually take into account recommendations from the government on how to treat and sentence prisoners accused of terrorism. Civilian judges follow the draconian anti-terrorism laws imposed by President Alberto Fujimori in 1992.

To find the genesis of all this anger, it is necessary to return to the Lima of Nov. 30, 1995, the day Berenson was arrested on a Lima bus. Hours later, a dozen young Peruvians with whom she had shared a house began a quixotic 12-hour gun battle with the police. From the documents we have seen of Berenson's interrogation and the case the police made against her and the others, there is every indication that the police had a very weak case for charging her with masterminding a purported takeover of Congress and with treason against Peru.

But to most Peruvians, the Lori Berenson they remember is the one they saw on their televisions on Jan. 8, 1996, when she was presented to the press by the police, making her first public statement since her arrest. "In the MRTA there are no criminal terrorists," she said, defending the group. "It is a revolutionary movement."

Those words, her voice defiant, her eyes blazing, were enough to set the hearts and minds of Peruvian viewers against Berenson. Nor did Berenson's fellow Americans fighting for human rights and civil justice in Peru, many of them veterans of many governments over many decades, cry many tears of sympathy for their comadre. "What pains me most," said an American journalist who has lived in Lima since the mid-1980s, shortly after Berenson's TV appearance, "is the arrogance implied in taking up arms in a country which is not your own." It didn't matter that neither that journalist nor any other private figure had seen evidence that Berenson had "taken up arms." The rules according to Fujimori's anti-terrorism laws called for anonymous judges to base their decisions on the testimony of anonymous witnesses, testimony that the defendant could neither read nor question.

In Peru for barely one year, Berenson hadn't learned the subtle language of a country that these veterans had spent their lives trying to decode.

These reactions were symptomatic of an exhaustion that had burrowed into the bones of all Peruvians. For 12 years, from 1980 to 1992, the country had been terrorized by warfare between the unpredictable and inhuman Maoist Shining Path insurgency and government forces driven to repression--30,000 people had died and hundreds of thousands had been uprooted by the violence. With the capture in 1992 of the Shining Path's chief ideologue, Abimael Guzman, the country was able to breathe once more, if in the fitful gasps of those whose memories are quite alive. While the MRTA had played a much smaller role in the hostilities, few people had the inclination to distinguish between it and the Shining Path.

This was the Peru that welcomed Berenson when she arrived in late 1994. This was the Peru that tried her, behind hoods and over television sets on the night of Jan. 8, 1996, a country exhausted by 15 years of bombs and blood, devoid of any sympathy it might once have had for rebel movements.

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