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Her Solidarity is with the Poor

Lori Berenson’s Story

by WILLIAM J. NOTTINGHAM

The story of Lori Berenson and the political prisoners of Peru, held under discredited "antiterrorist" legislation, should make us vigilant about civil rights and due process in our own society. The Patriot Act has precedence all over Latin America in the form of so-called national security systems of the late 20th century supported by Washington. A Kerry victory in November would not be reassuring in itself, because since 9/11 we have seen a repressive infrastructure develop and estrangement of police powers which have been tolerated overseas wherever they served our alleged national interest. Like other policies abroad, they come home to haunt us. We are challenged to educate for peace and justice in a particularly crucial time and to try to raise the public consciousness of rights too precious to surrender.

I became interested in Lori Berenson as soon as I read about her arrest in Lima, November 30, 1995, two weeks after her 26th birthday and only about a year after she had arrived in Peru. From the description of charges that she had some acquaintance with members of the Tupac Amaru guerilla movement (MRTA), I knew that she could have been any one of the young people we had sent overseas as global mission personnel and interns for the mainline churches since the 1970’s. Disciples of Christ and the UCC had people held in jail in the Philippines and Paraguay. Some had their lives threatened in Guatemala, Honduras, and Lesotho and one was killed in South Africa. Young men and women went out to work with ecumenical human rights groups, councils of churches, and Christian activist organizations from South Korea to the Middle East. Risks were strong in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and eventually Chiapas and Haiti. They were well-educated, politically aware, non-violent, and committed to global justice.

I knew that Lori’s solidarity with the poor of the so-called Third World was the same as ours, whether her motivation was religious or not. And after all, how could it not be?

I have visited her five times in prison in Peru since the request of her parents to be part of a clergy delegation in 1999. Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, and Dr. James Lawson participated in one of those visits, which included meetings with the American ambassador, Peruvian officials, and Roman Catholic church leaders. The delegations served a purpose, but obviously they did not succeed in obtaining her release.

On June 19, I spent a day with Lori in the penitentiary near Cajamarca. Mostly I conveyed the affection and support of the Free Lori Committee and many friends. As always, I was deeply impressed by her stamina and commitment to justice. Among other things she wanted to know of the visits I had made at her request to MRTA prisoners in Lima. These men and women are totally abandoned by Peruvian human rights organizations and ignored internationally by progressive political parties of Europe and the Americas.

Lori went to Peru because of her experiences in El Salvador, where she was committed for several years to bringing an end to the war there. I told students at Butler University that to understand Lori, you have to know how Americans were affected by our government’s involvement in El Salvador during the 1980’s. While she was a student at MIT, she visited that country in 1988 with a group of Quaker women and subsequently left MIT to work with organizations like CISPES. At that time, those letters meant "Churches In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador." Then she went to Nicaragua to help refugees in a program sponsored by the Jesuits. She met Comandante Leonel Gonzalez of the FMLN, became his secretary, and accompanied him to negotiations in Mexico and New York to conclude the peace process in 1992. Dropping his nom de guerre, today he is Congressman Salvador Sanchez Cerén, member of the legislature in San Salvador. Wherever armed struggle has given way to peace and democracy in Latin America, former revolutionaries of the 1980’s are members of the government, except in Peru, where they rot in jail.

Lori went to Peru in 1994 as a writer and had contact with persons under assumed names and construed identities who turned out to be part of the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (MRTA). In November 1995, she was arrested on a city bus in Lima, while siege was laid to a house she had rented and which had been used by the guerilla movement, she says unbeknownst to her. She was sentenced the following January to life imprisonment for "treason" by a secret military tribunal of hooded judges, literally sin rostro ("without a face"). Lori and twenty other defendants had no opportunity to cross-examine witnesses or to defend themselves legally. After conviction, Lori was sent to the infamous Yanamayo prison, located in a remote region of the Peruvian Andes at over 12,000 feet altitude. She suffered from serious medical problems, and after nearly three years, she was moved to a prison at a somewhat lower altitude near Arequipa. Then she taken to the maximum security women’s prison in Los Chorrillos, near Lima, and now is in a penitentiary near Cajamarca.

In August, 2000, with the international scandal of President Fujimori’s corrupt spy chief Vladimir Montesinos, who was later captured in Venezuela and is now in a prison he had built for others, Lori’s life sentence was overturned and the military tribunal officially disavowed by the Peruvian High Court. Instead of being released, however, she was kept in custody, tried again, convicted, and sentenced on June 20, 2001, to twenty years in prison. This time, she was not accused of being a member, much less a leader, of the MRTA but a "collaborator." The same tainted evidence was used to reconvict her by the same unreformed judiciary in total disregard of double jeopardy. Lori’s military trial in 1996 was carried out during the regime of Alberto Fujimori, who fled the country in the fall of 2000 and is successfully avoiding extradition from Japan in spite of an Interpol warrant for his arrest.

In March 2003, at Lori’s urging, a friend and I visited nearly 60 MRTA political prisoners in five different penitentiaries, both men and women. In January, 2003, all of their trials and life sentences were declared unconstitutional by the Toledo government, and new trials are underway. In June 2004, I again visited them and their Family Association, with Pastor Felix Ortiz, executive for Latin America and the Caribbean for Global Ministries of the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ. Our churches are providing funds through the Family Association for legal assistance and for support upon release.

With Lori’s encouragement, a new NGO has been organized this year, called ALAS, the Spanish word for "wings." Its purpose is to monitor the hearings, provide lawyers, and to assist ex-prisoners to form a cooperative for mutual support, mental health, and common purpose in the community. The Association for Legal Aid and Social Action assists former and current political prisoners to empower themselves through cooperatively managed programs and reintegration services. Former political prisoners and a few committed human rights defenders willing to take the risk founded ALAS so that this group formed in the armed struggle could help itself and engage in constructive social dialogue with others.

Lori Berenson’s various involvements in Latin America were motivated by her concern for social justice and her understanding of the oppression of the poor. Her humanitarian and political sympathies made her the target of an oppressive right-wing government. She has maintained her innocence in the face of many inducements. She neither condones nor justifies violence of any kind. For this reason, her imprisonment and deprivation are not seen by her as meaningless. Like many others confined unjustly, she depends on a spiritual and moral strength that is an example to those who know her.

In July, 2002, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights vindicated Lori and called for her release and compensation, but due to the refusal of Peruvian authorities to release her, her case has taken two more years to be heard last May 7 and 8 by the InterAmerican Court in Costa Rica. The question is not guilt or innocence but whether she had a fair trial. It appears that a decision will not be announced until November.

We like to think that the present government in Peru is struggling towards a better future with justice and democracy. The report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee last August was a hopeful sign, but not much has come of it because of President Toledo’s low standing in the polls–about 8%. The call for Lori’s release on humanitarian grounds is worthy of Peru’s attention, and some officials recognize the injustice of her imprisonment. Hundreds of US members of Congress have signed letters on her behalf.

We can help by writing the Bush administration and supporting the Committee to Free Lori Berenson. Above all, we can understand the vulnerability of our own society and be alert to demand protection for the rights of everyone. Her website is www.freelori.org

WILLIAM J. NOTTINGHAM is president emeritus, Division of Overseas Ministries Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the US and Canada.