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 later.

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, and her

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 prison.

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 Peru?

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 the world."

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 release Berenson.

"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 is

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