Gringa in an Andean Prison
A campaign mounts to bring Lori Berenson home
by Robin Flinchum
January 11 marked the fourth anniversary of the unfair trial
and sentencing of U.S. citizen Lori Berenson to life in a Peruvian
prison. To commemorate the occasion, Berenson began a hunger strike
to demonstrate her "rejection of the social injustice"
and "the violation of human dignity" in prison, she
said in a statement released to the U.S. embassy in Lima. "In
the face of injustice, silence is an accomplice.... In the face
of the structural and institutionalized violence, which is prevalent
in so many places, one cannot and must not keep quiet."
Before she began the strike, Berenson told her mother in a
visit at the prison that the strike would end when she felt she
had made her point to both the U.S. and Peruvian governments.
As it went on, she made no demands of either government and only
issued her statement of protest. She ended her strike two weeks
The Clinton Administration has never publicly acknowledged
her wrongful incarceration or lifted a finger in protest.
Berenson traveled to Peru in 1995 as a journalist and human
rights activist. Later that same year, she was arrested and charged
with "treason against the fatherland of Peru" for her
alleged involvement with a guerrilla group known as the Tupac
Amaru Revolutionary Movement. Her conviction was swift, the proceedings
secret. Berenson was not allowed to speak in her own defense,
sentence was handed down by a hooded military tribunal. Since
then, she has exhausted all possible appeals in the Peruvian courts,
and the Peruvian government says she will not be granted another
trial. Berenson's health has deteriorated considerably, according
to her parents and her lawyer, Ramsey Clark.
Oddly enough, the best hope for Berenson may turn out to be
Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who condemned her on national
television before her trial in 1996. Fujimori hasn't changed his
tune on Berenson, but his increasingly public disregard for democracy
and human rights in Peru is beginning to alienate Washington,
and this may lead to more willingness on the part of the Clinton
Administration to raise the issue of Berenson's incarceration.
"Fujimori is becoming more and more obstinate,"
says Gail Taylor, national coordinator of the Committee to Free
Lori Berenson, based in Washington, D.C. "This gives us more
pull with the U.S. Administration."
And pull is what it will take to free Berenson from her Andean
According to international law, Berenson should have been
guaranteed a fair trial. Several major human rights organizations,
including the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights, conducted
investigations. All came to similar conclusions.
As Amnesty International phrases it, "There is no way
of getting around the fact that she did not receive a fair trial."
The question now is how much protection does the U.S. government
owe an American citizen traveling, visiting, or working in another
country-especially one as politically unstable and volatile as
Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, has
been championing Berenson's case in the House. Waters authored
an amendment to a resolution last session calling for Berenson's
release but it was voted down by a narrow margin last July. The
amendment called for the Administration to bring Berenson home
rather than press Fujimori for a new trial, since Waters believes
it's unlikely Berenson can receive a fair trial in Peru's present
political climate. Waters also believes that the deterioration
of Berenson's health warrants a release on humanitarian grounds.
Members of both the House and the Senate continue to generate
letters of support addressing President Clinton and Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright, as well as President Fujimori.
Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, circulated
a "Dear Colleague" letter in the House last May. Citing
a U.S. statute that directs the President to take all necessary
steps, short of going to war, to secure the release of an American
citizen "unjustly deprived of his liberty by or under the
authority of any government," she urged the Clinton Administration
to get involved in Berenson's case.
"Lack of leadership and effective action on Lori's case
could endanger U.S. citizens not only in Peru, but in many other
countries," reads the letter, signed by 180 Representatives.
"It sends the unfortunate message that the U.S. will not
act when its citizens are wrongfully imprisoned in foreign countries.
In addition, lack of action in this case would jeopardize the
importance of the office of U.N. High Commission on Human Rights
and denigrate the cause of justice and human rights throughout
Taylor estimates the campaign to bring Berenson home is supported
by about a third of the Senate and half of the House. If public
and political opinion can be rallied behind Berenson, says Taylor,
the U.S. government will be more willing to take a stand.
In order to accomplish this, Taylor is spearheading a grassroots
campaign to educate the average American voter about Berenson's
situation. Thirty regional coordinators, working with Taylor out
of her office in Washington, are stepping up efforts to educate
the public not only about the case of Lori Berenson, but about
general issues of justice and democracy in Peru.
Already, agitation on behalf of Berenson has had an effect.
In Brockton, Massachusetts, her father, Mark Berenson, spoke to
a group of high school students who in turn brought the issue
before the mayor. The mayor issued a proclamation calling for
Lori's release. In Berkeley, California, a group of citizens,
including Berenson's longtime friend Kristen Gardner, persuaded
the city council to pass a similar resolution.
Meanwhile, the White House maintains an unbroken silence on
Berenson's imprisonment. Although Taylor estimates that thousands
of letters and postcards have been mailed to President Clinton
urging him to take action, he has yet to challenge Fujimori to
"This issue has been a thorn in the side of U.S.-Peru
relations for a long time, and it's going to become more so,"
Taylor says. "I promise."
Robin Flinchum is a freelance journalist and a women's health
educator. She wrote "The Women of Chiapas" in the March
1998 issue. The website for the Committee to Free Lori Berenson
South America watch