Peruvian Peril

A mother lobbies two governments to free her daughter.

The story is news. U.S. citizen Lori Berenson, serving a life sentence in Peru, is being tried on lesser charges in part because of her family's heroic efforts. Tucsonans get to hear the story firsthand from Rhoda Berenson, who arrives in Tucson Wednesday to continue to promote awareness about her daughter's ordeal, which began late in 1995.

The phone call from the State Department ripped college professor Berenson's quiet, private world apart and flung her down a path she never could have imagined. Lori had been arrested for treason in a country known for its flagrant disregard of justice and human rights. In her book Lori: My Daughter Wrongfully Imprisoned in Peru, Berenson shares their difficult, frustrating and sometimes unbearable story.

Armed with only press credentials, 26-year-old Lori was living in Lima, investigating the effects of poverty on Peruvian women for two New York-based magazines. With no evidence, the government declared her a leader of the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (MRTA), a rebel group. Without a trial, she was sentenced in a closed hearing by a hooded judge. For more than five years she has been imprisoned in sometimes primitive, often unhealthy conditions. Her family has been continuously focused on freeing her.

Lori is a painful reminder that justice is not a given and that we can't count on our own government to stand up for its citizens' rights if it isn't politically convenient. The book is packed with tenacity, heroism, passion, frustration and political intrigue. But don't expect a happy ending on the last page. The story continues.

Berenson wrote the book to heighten awareness, which makes lobbying with the U.S. and Peruvian governments more effective. "Anyone invites me, I go," Berenson said last month while preparing to travel to Peru for the 45th time.

Berenson battles misinformation. A radio talk show caller said he had been at the MRTA house the night Lori was arrested and she had been in a room, surrounded by guns. Lori was actually arrested during the day on a public bus. "The man was vehement that he saw what he saw," Berenson said. "On Peruvian television they repeatedly showed a photo of Lori, then a photo of a room full of guns. People link the two together and eventually they think of Lori in the room with the guns."

And there is the usual unfortunate presumption of guilt. "She must have done something" is easier to believe than to accept an innocent American languishing in a foreign prison without U.S. intervention. A psychotherapist told Berenson, "It makes people less afraid. If they are sure Lori did something to bring this on herself, it makes them feel safer. If Peruvians have done nothing, they are safe only if Lori did something. If Lori is innocent, then they are in danger," Berenson said.

Former President Clinton never demanded Lori's release, as he is required to do under a law that directs the president to take all necessary steps to secure the release of an incarcerated American citizen "if it appears to be wrongful." Berenson's contact with the Bush administration resulted in a statement from Secretary of State Colin Powell that he will make sure that Peru knows Lori is "an issue of concern." Still, our government falls short in making meaningful noise.

Lori is holding up in spite of the vision, digestive and circulation problems she acquired when held in a prison at an elevation of 12,700 feet. While the conditions recounted in the book are hard to stomach, Berenson said Peru's new justice minister has helped to make the environment in the prisons more tolerable in the last three months, since former president Alberto Fujimora fled to Japan.

Because Fujimora was notoriously heavy-handed with the courts, the new Peruvian regime doesn't want to appear to be interfering in the same way. Berenson has attempted to convince them that reforming the courts rather than leaving them under the old system wouldn't be interfering or inappropriate. If successful, her efforts will benefit all Peruvian political prisoners.

While the consensus in human rights circles is that the current proceedings lack due process and preclude a fair trial, the upside is that it brings media attention that could generate enough pressure to free Lori and cause much-needed reforms.

The Internet helps Berenson's quest. In the past, when a story hit the media, folks would have to be very motivated to track the family down. Now Berenson can refer people to her Web site, Because Lori is allowed to receive mail only in Spanish, the site provides a translator.

The Free Lori campaign has garnered support from groups like Amnesty International and individuals worldwide. "Oprah has a very proactive audience," says Berenson. "She says go to the Web site, and they do." One week Berenson received e-mails from Iceland, the next week Austria, then New Zealand, according to where the Oprah show she appeared on was broadcast.

Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark poses a haunting question in the book's afterword: "What would you have done if Lori were your daughter, or if your closest friend had met with Lori's fate?" It's unimaginable that anyone could have done more than the Berenson family has. The reader is left wondering what would have happened to Lori without her parents' efforts. It's clear that they'll continue to lobby to win their difficult and emotionally grueling battle to free Lori, their daughter, wrongfully imprisoned in Peru.

While in Tucson, Rhoda Berenson will meet with the press and supporters, speak to University of Arizona students of law, journalism, Latin American studies and anthropology, and members of the Jewish community and the Center for Prevention and Resolution of Violence. She will lead a rally and vigil for Lori on Thursday, April 19 from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. in front the Federal Building at 300 W. Congress. She'll sign copies of her book, Lori: My Daughter Wrongfully Imprisoned in Peru, at Antigone, 411 N. Fourth Ave., on Friday, April 20 from 7 to 9 p.m.
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