Lima, Peru - After 15 years in prison in Peru, on Jan. 24 U.S. progressive activist Lori Berenson finally won her freedom. Berenson had been jailed in Peru since November 1995. She was initially released from prison last May, only to be rejailed three months later as Peruvian judges went back and forth about whether to continue to imprison her.
In the Jan. 24 parole ruling, a three judge panel rejected an appeal by the Peruvian State Prosecutor that would have returned Lori to prison. The panel reaffirmed the decision of the original judge granting Berenson parole.
In November 1995, Lori Berenson was arrested in Lima, Peru and accused of being a member of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). At the time Berenson was researching the effects of poverty on women in Peru and working as a credentialed journalist on assignments from two progressive U.S. publications, Modern Times and Third World Viewpoint.
The MRTA was a Peruvian armed revolutionary Marxist organization that gained some influence in the 1980s and early 1990s (though the MRTA was smaller than the more powerful and well known Peruvian armed revolutionary organization, Shining Path).
Facing powerful mass movements and a growing leftist armed insurgency, in 1992 Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori carried out a ‘self-coup,’ in which he shut down Peru’s Congress, suspended the country’s constitution, and purged the judiciary. Fujimori granted himself sweeping repressive powers to attack and jail political opponents, under the guise of fighting terrorism.
After her arrest in 1995, Berenson refused to denounce the MRTA as terrorists, proclaiming that she considered them a legitimate revolutionary movement, not terrorists. The Fujimori government twisted this expression of a political viewpoint into a supposed admission that she was part of the MRTA. Berenson consistently denied that she was part of the MRTA and at her subsequent trials no witnesses claimed that Lori was a member of the MRTA or collaborated with them and no other credible evidence was presented.
Berenson didn’t get a trial, instead she was railroaded by a military tribunal wearing hoods to conceal their identities. They sentenced Berenson to life in Peruvian prison for ‘treason against the fatherland,’ using Fujimori’s emergency anti-terrorism laws. In that era these military tribunals had a 97% conviction rate.
After four years in prison under harsh conditions and after significant international pressure Berenson was retried by a civilian court in 2001. But they used the same Fujimori-era anti-terrorism legislation, so Berenson was again convicted and this time given a 20-year sentence. In April 2002, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared that both of Lori Berenson’s convictions were obtained under illegal anti-terrorism laws that failed to comply with international standards and violated her rights to due process. The Commission further declared that Peru failed to demonstrate proof in its conviction of Lori Berenson and ruled that her rights be fully restored and that Peru must completely amend its illegal anti-terrorism laws.
Lori Berenson was just one of the many who suffered unjustly under Fujimori’s illegitimate anti-terrorism laws. Thousands of people were tried by hooded military tribunals, denied due process and wrongfully convicted in that period. While in prison, Berenson was subjected to abusive treatment, termed "cruel, inhumane and degrading" by several human rights organizations, but she noted that the physical and psychological abuses suffered by many others were much worse. As in Lori Berenson's case, thousands of people condemned under these illegal anti-terrorism laws were innocent of the charges or were given disproportionately high sentences and many have been brutally mistreated or tortured.
In 2009, former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, the man who arrested and used Lori Berenson for his own political gains, was himself convicted for human rights abuses, massacres, kidnapping, embezzlement, bribery and tapping the phones of journalists, business people and opposition politicians. He was given a 25-year sentence for the many abuses committed during his presidency. Fujimori’s closest accomplice, former head of the feared National Intelligence Service Vladimiro Montesinos, is also now imprisoned at the Callao maximum-security prison naval base (which was built under his orders during the 1990s) on charges ranging from drug trafficking to murder. Fujimori’s convictions and the lengthy series of court cases in which Montesinos is being tried makes clear the scale of state repression, murder and corruption carried out by Fujimori’s government while he was in power in Peru.