"If we had support from the U.S. government,
we could have gotten her out immediately."

An interview with Ramsey Clark

by Dennis Bernstein

The Progressive magazine, March 2000

Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark has represented the underdog and taken on the U.S. national security state time and time again. In addition to campaigning against the U.S. war in Kosovo and the ongoing U.S. war in Iraq, Clark is now representing Lori Berenson. In early November, he visited her in Peru, where she is serving a life sentence under harsh conditions. I caught up with him on November 13 in San Francisco, while he was attending the Independent Commission of Inquiry to Investigate U.S./NATO War Crimes Against the People of Yugoslavia. And I touched base with him again at the end of January after Berenson had ended a two-week hunger strike. What follows are excerpts from those conversations.

Q: What was the Peruvian government's justification for the arrest of Lori Berenson?

Ramsey Clark: Lori was arrested as she rode on a public bus in downtown Lima. She struggled because she thought she was being robbed. Immediately, President Fujimori appeared on national television waving her U.S. passport and saying that she was a terrorist and part of the MRTA, the Tupac Amaru, which is a terrorist organization, according to the government of Peru.

They had no evidence, though they claimed different types. They claimed she was a leader. Now how could she become a leader of a terrorist organization? She had no background, no experience, didn't know the streets or the names. But that was an essential element in the offense: To be guilty of aggravated treason, you have to be a leader, not just a working stiff. They claimed some people were planning to seize the National Congress, take hostages, and demand the release of MRTA prisoners in exchange. They claimed that she had rented a building [for the MRTA]. But she didn't sign the lease. It took me three days arguing with the military before they let me see the lease. The general conceded, "Well, actually she didn't sign it, but she was there when it was signed." I said, "Tell me where the property was and where the landlord was." So he did, and I went out and talked to the landlord, and he said, "There was no woman there when the lease was signed .." The arrest of Lori Berenson gave Fujimori a chance to seem to have the courage to stand up to the United States, and that's good politics throughout Latin America. And it gave the United States a chance to chill any participation of people who simply wanted to help the poor in places like Peru. So it was convenient for everybody.

She was tried by a military tribunal, which was completely secret. The judges, if that's what they were, were military people and they wore hoods. She never saw them.

She never saw witnesses, she never confronted witnesses, she never knew what witnesses said. She was not permitted to introduce evidence herself. She had no power to call witnesses.

There was no real trial. And she was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason.

She was originally jailed at a place called Yanamayo, which is 12,700 feet above sea level.

Q: What were her prison conditions like?

Clark: Yanamayo has been condemned internationally as a place where incarceration is inherently cruel, inhuman, and degrading. There's no running water. There's no heat. The altitude is extremely high, so it's very, very cold at night all year round. The Incas' bodies over generations adapted to it-big hearts and short limbs, so their systems could cope with the thinness of the oxygen. But for someone like Lori, it was extremely hard on her organs and on her hands.

She stayed there for almost three years. She's now at a place called Socabaya, which is just outside of Arequipa at about 7,700 feet in altitude, which is 2,000 feet higher than Denver.

Still, it is much better. But she's kept in isolation. She's one of five women prisoners there who are charged with either terrorism, which is a lesser offense, or treason, for which she has been convicted.

Q: Could you describe her physical condition?

Clark: When I first saw Lori, I went down with her father about five days after her arrest. They wouldn't let us talk with her at that time, but we could see her. And even though she had been questioned around the clock and psychologically bullied, she was spirited and strong.

I saw her in November and she had lost some weight. Her hands were kind of like baseball mitts, even though she's been down from the highest altitudes for about a year now. We worry about her respiratory system and her heart. But she doesn't complain about those things. She complains about the treatment of other prisoners. Her family was going down all the time. They're in a state of exhaustion. They're doing everything they can to get things to help her. But what she does is pass them out to others. She maintains a level of living that is equal to that of the other prisoners, so she gives them a new sleeping bag when she gets one. She was able to get a guitar, but her hands are in very bad shape. It's hard for her to strum and play, but she sang a song and laughed.

She's weak now after her hunger strike. She wasn't in the best of health or strength before she began it, but she's a very committed person.

Q: Are you surprised or disappointed about the apparent lack of U.S. concern and action?

Clark Very disappointed. If we don't stand up for our own, who do we stand up for? There's no question that Lori has been confined under what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines as "inhuman and degrading punishment." The President has a statutory duty that has been on the books for more than a century to demand the release of any American citizen who is wrongfully detained. And she is by definition wrongfully detained.

Let me say first about the U.S. government that early on it was clearly part of the problem. If we had support from the U.S. government, we could have gotten her out immediately. Instead, what we had were stories from Buenos Aires and Caracas citing U.S. information intelligence agents-who declined to be named-who said that she had been traveling a lot, that the circumstances of her activities were mysterious, and that there was reason to believe that she may have been involved in terrorist types of activities. It wasn't the U.S. government; it was unidentified intelligence personnel. But that was the kiss of death from the standpoint of trying to negotiate her way out.

The U.S. government provided what they call consular services: You want to write your mother a letter, we'll come every two months and we'll take the letter home in the pouch and send it to her. You've got a headache, we'll see if we can get you some aspirin.

Having said all this, you know, I'm an optimist. I would expect some breakthrough. And I would expect that Lori will be set free, and that they will paper it over to make it look like they're compassionate. And the United States will maintain its position that, as Madeleine Albright has said, "We're against all terrorism, particularly terrorism by our own people."

Q: What is the status of the case right now?

Clark: We believe there is some movement. Popular support has grown enormously. A majority of the House of Representatives has signed a letter to the President demanding action to secure her release from prison. And about a third of the Senate, with more coming in the very near future, so we will have an overwhelming commitment from Congress and the people. Thirty youngsters at a high school in Massachusetts are going on a one-day hunger strike in support of Lori. We find new awareness and support coming in from all over the country.

Q: What would you like people to do?

Clark: Write your Congressman and Senators and urge them to press the President to do his duty to demand the release of Lori Berenson. I think pressure through the Congress has proven more effective than just letters to the President. We haven't gotten much reaction from the White House.


Dennis Bernstein is host producer of KPFA's Flashpoints, a daily radio news magazine in San Francisco.

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