Visiting Lori Berenson

by GARY HANDSCHUMACHER

April 23, 2004: Lori Berenson stands at a steel table next to a walk-in size oven. She is a baker of some reknown now, at least among the network of political prisoners in Peru’s various dungeons. She is spreading the last bit of frosting on a birthday cake for another prisoner which I will carry on my all-night bus ride back to Lima.

Lori is in the middle of her ninth year of imprisonment in Peru. This is her fourth stop of a horrendous journey through Peru’s Penal system. She was arrested in November 1995, shortly after her twenty-sixth birthday. Two months later she received a life sentence from a trio of hooded judges using so-called anti-terrorist laws, which the Fujimori/Montesinos regime used to imprison anyone who opposed its will. Laws and practices that have been condemned by virtually the entire international human rights community, as well being considered far out of compliance with world stanards of judicial due process

No evidence has ever surfaced connecting Lori Berenson to any crime. She has had these, nearly nine, years stolen from her only because of her political beliefs and her unwillingness to "repent".

Her sentence was reduced to 20 years in June of 2001 iin a second court process; her official label changed from "traitor" to "collaborator". These proceedings too have been widely condemned, most notably by the inter-American Commission on Human Rights which determined in 2002 that, "the Peruvian State is responsible for the violation of the right of judical guarantees, of personal integrity, and of the right concerning the principle of legality to the detrimentof Berenson, having judged her in a military court, submitting her to inhumane and degrading conditions of detention, starting a new trial conforming to legal decree 25475(anti-terrorist law), and permitting evidence collected during the first [military] process with a value of proof in said second trial." In essence, the Commision concluded that her human rights have been violated, and that Lori’s second "trial" was nothing more than a facsimile of the previous injustice of 1996.

The Government of Peru refused to comply. The Commission filed suit in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It is this suit which was on the docket when the Court convened on May 7. So, while this proceeding was about Lori, she, in fact, was only a witness; she had been questioned on a video affidavit earlier. The Court will probably not render a decision for several months

Predictions for the outcome run the spectrum. Most believe that Peru will lose, but may only be confronted with the demand that Lori be put through another, much-less-than-perfect, "trial". {It must be understood, that though Fujimori and Montesinos are gone, much of the regime’s judicial aparatus continues. On Monday April 25, I observed three hearings of these so-called re-trials now being offered to political prisoners. None lasted more than a few minutes before being postponed. Microphones, that would have allowed those of us in the audience to hear, were inoperative, and , at one point, one of the judges decided to check her cell-phone messages while the defendeant was being questioned.} The more hopeful among Lori’s supporters are hoping for some kind of release soon.

Lori and I spent more than 6 hours together in the bakery. I had not seen her in three years. The Huacariz Prison in Cajamarca Peru is located, beautifully, in the mountains about 500 miles north of Lima. From inside the prison can be seen the semi-arid, tree covered mountains; Lori has never seen the city of Cajamarca. But while the climate and physical conditions are much more pleasant the Lori endured during the first seven years of her unjust imprisonment, she is severely isolated. She is the only political prisoner at Huacariz, the others are described as "common-criminals", and do not share Lori’s political perspective. She commented that she spends most days in the bakery, and rarely talks with others, except around tasks to be done in the bakery.

Lori does have phone access, and, is in frequent contact with family and friends. But, it it is a somewhat gruelling, 13 hour bus ride from Lima. Anibal, Lori’s new husband tries to visit twice a month, and someone from her family, or other friends, visit monthly. But mostly, she stays alone. I recall Nelson Mandela, and other South African political prisoers speaking of the importance in their imprisonment to be with other political prisoners, to learn and grow, and support one another, until justice found them.

I commented to her that it saddened me that she has been so abandoned by the"left" in the US, particularly the Latin American Solidarity community. And, that the forces of the right seem to be much more committed to helping friends in trouble. She only replied,"Yes, that seems true."

We did not speak of the US Government silence about Lori’s case. One might think that a US citizen, she would at least get a bit of support in light of the Human Rights Commission determination. But, as Noam Chomsky wrote in the forward to Rhoda Berenson’s book–LORI, My Daughter, Wongfully Imprisoned in Peru…"She is also–not so indirectly–a victim of Washington’s policies, in two respects: because of its support for the Peruvian terror state and the conditions it imposes on its population, and because of its evasiveness in coming to her defense, as it can readily do, with considerable if not decisive influence."

Simply put, Lori’s life has been traded in the interest of political expediency, and as a bonus, she has become a brutal warning to all who might try to challenge US policy in Latin America.

But Chomsky added, "Also not so indirectly, she is a victim of all of those–in all honesty, I cannot fail to include myself–who have done far too little to rescue her from the suffering she has endured for her refusal to bend to the will of state terrorist authorities."

The case in the Inter-American Rights Court has been heard. This is the last court of law available to her, but it is not her last hope. If the judges and lawyers ultimately fail, then it will be time to rebuild the political effort to free Lori.

If this political process does not re-develop and succeed, she may be unjustly imprisoned until 2115.; and this will be the only crime associated with Lori Berenson.

In mid- afternoon, Lori asked if it would be all right if we went out to where the music was being performed. A group of high school students had just finished and she wanted to say hello. It was quite poignant to see the young women excitedly line up to embrace her.

As visiting hours ended, at 5:00, Lori and I embraced, and, once more I experienced the hollow feeling of walking through the metal gates and leaving her behind. Lori is strong. She has found some good to do in the awful reality of Peru’s prison regime. The bakery is successful; Lori is negotiating to provide baked goods for a nutrition program for the poor, rather poorer, in Cajamarca. She has begun an English class for a few other prisoners, has become a counselor/ mentor to some of the younger inmates, and she uses some of her alone time to play her guitar and write songs.

I hope justice and freedom will be with her soon.

More information on Lori’s ordeal can be found at: www.freelori.org

GARY HANDSCHUMACHER has worked with others for more than eight years trying to free Lori. He has been active in peace and justice work since 1967. He is co-producer of SPEAKING FREELY, a progressive public affairs program on KVNF community radio, in Paonia, Colorado. He is a farmer and a foster parent living on the Western Slope of Colorado. He can be reached at: garyannac@msn.com


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