Whirlwind sweeps parents of U.S. prisoner in Peru
NEW YORK (Reuters) -- It seems as if the whirlwind has never stopped for
Mark and Rhoda Berenson since the day five years ago when a hooded Peruvian
military judge sentenced their daughter to life in prison on charges she led a
Lori Berenson's sentencing in mid-January 1996 threw the lives of her parents,
academics from Manhattan, into turmoil and set them on an unimaginable quest
to free their daughter.
They spoke in early August at the White House with Hillary Rodham Clinton,
who told them she would do whatever she could to bring their daughter home,
and they met repeatedly last summer with National Security Adviser Sandy
Berger, who expressed his determination to secure her release and said he would
love to be aboard the plane returning her, they say.
In a potential breakthrough in August, Peru's top military justice council
lifted Berenson's life
sentence, citing a lack of evidence to back her conviction as a guerrilla leader. It sent the case to
a civilian court and a prosecutor said evidence supported the view she was at least a member or
collaborator of the rebels, crimes punishable by at least 20 years in prison.
With her retrial in the early stages, Peru's new justice minister has eased
helping her prepare her defense. And her parents continue to lobby intensively
for her release.
During their tortuous five-year campaign, they pounded the halls of Congress,
convincing 221 members of the House and 40 senators to sign petitions for the
humanitarian release of their daughter on grounds of her failing health. The
petitions, sent in late July to President Bill Clinton, also cited violations of
international law in the military trial that convicted her of being a Tupac Amaru
Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) leader.
In Peru, the elder Berensons gasped for air in the Andes, trudging up to
feet (3,870 meters) above sea level to a jail where Lori was held for three years,
plagued by arthritic knees, failing eyesight and bloated, numbed, purplish hands.
Their emotional roller coaster -- with its peaks like the White House meetings
moments of devastation like hearing of the li recenfe sentence -- is recounted in Rhoda
Berenson'st book, "Lori: My Daughter, Wrongfully Imprisoned in Peru."
The parents told Reuters in an interview that the civilian trial is in
a first stage
where the judge decides what charges, if any, to bring. They said their 31-year-old
daughter could draw as much as 30 years in prison for alleged association
with MRTA members. Or she could be accused of the lesser charge of "apology"
for terrorism, with a minimum four-year sentence, meaning she could be freed on time served.
'They are on a fishing expedition'
Stirring their concern is the extended length of the trial, which the presiding
judge Romel Borda said on August 29 would be two months, three at the most.
Now, 4 1/2 months later, charges have not even been brought for her trial,
where she will be able to answer questions publicly and maintain her innocence.
For Mark Berenson, the delay is because "There's no evidence against Lori,
are on a fishing expedition."
Another postponement came unexpectedly when Judge Borda was removed
from the case without explanation on January 5. Berenson said his replacement
might need time to absorb the details.
Two rabbis who visited Lori separately in October said she had mixed emotions
about her prospects for freedom.
"There was hope, there was light, she would have more access to a lawyer,"
Rabbi Ronald Greenwald said. "But she still was afraid that the system was tough
and possibly corrupt and would she get a fair shake?"
Manhattan-based Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein saw her the day after the surprise
resignation of President Alberto Fujimori, who in a TV appearance days after her
November 30, 1995, arrest waved her passport and linked her to the MRTA.
Fujimori led a tough crackdown on MRTA and Shining Path guerrillas in Peru.
"(With him gone), she hoped things would go better for her but had questions
judicial system would not change in a few days. She was wondering if she would get a
fair trial," Bronstein said. But he recalled she said she had to go ahead with it because it was
the name of the game.
Peru is now under a transition government through July 28, and the new
Diego Garcia Sayan, is a longtime human rights activist. When Mark Berenson met
Garcia Sayan in November, he told him Lori was preparing a petition on behalf of all
prisoners complaining that they had little access to their lawyers -- at most one hour a
'News to him'
"This was news to him," Berenson said. Shortly after their meeting, the
ministry revamped rules to allow lawyers four hours daily four times a week
with prisoners, giving Lori more time to prepare for the public phase of the trial.
But her parents wish the move had come earlier, saying she was allowed
brief time with her Peruvian lawyer before 11 hours of closed-door interrogation
on three days in September.
For all its limitations, the parents say the civilian trial is an improvement
1996 military trial, which human rights group Amnesty International called a
"parody of justice." Her lawyer then was barred from speaking to her before and
during her testimony, in which she said she was in Peru as a journalist, writing
articles for two U.S. magazines.
Under Garcia Sayan, visiting hours for relatives in jails have also been
making the Berensons' usual biweekly visits much more worthwhile. Previously
her parents and sister could meet her for only an hour on each trip and she was
behind a wire mesh screen. Now female relatives can visit her two full days
weekly in a courtyard and men one day.
Amid the uncertainty, one stark truth is that the parents' ordeal to free
wiped away the lives they once had. Both in their 50s, they left tenured teaching
posts to lobby full time for her freedom. He was a statistics professor at Baruch
College and she taught physics at a community college.
Their finances are strained by the legal campaign's three lawyers, including
former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. But on January 7, they said, they
saw their first Broadway play in five years. As they left, they saw preparations
for a motorcade for President Clinton, a reminder his term ends on January 20.
The Berensons said they hope to reach the new Bush administration through
Republican senators who have supported them and have already sent information
packets to Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell and incoming National
Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, but they have yet to get a response.
Copyright 2001 Reuters.