Peruvians See Berenson as "Treated Rather Better" Than Most

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Lori Berenson listens to her sentencing at San Juan de Lurigancho Prison U.S. reports have raised questions about whether Lori Berenson received a fair trial in Peru. How do Peruvians seem to see this case?

There doesn't seem to be much doubt among Peruvians that Lori Berenson was clearly hooked up with the MRTA (the leftist Tupac Amaru guerrilla group). So for Peruvians the issue of unfairness (unless you assume there's something basically unfair in the court system) is moderated by the fact that she got a second trial and she got an enormous amount of attention, which most Peruvians don't get under similar circumstances.

It's easy to see how they find the evidence against Berenson pretty damning. She'd rented the safe house; she was working with a woman who was part of the MRTA leadership. There was a map in her handwriting of the congress building (she was accused of reconnoitering it as a target for the MRTA), there were notes apparently by her, in her hand — an MRTA internal document about the Brady plan. Her explanations didn't seem particularly convincing. Her explanation for the safe house was that she rented it, then sublet it; she didn't know the woman was an MRTA person, the sketch had no terrorist purposes and so on. From a Peruvian point of view, this evidence against the background of the fact that she had worked for a leader of the (leftist guerrilla movement) Farabundo Martý Front for National Liberation in El Salvador didn't look good. Her past painted her as somebody quite likely to be connected with a guerilla movement in Peru. The fact that she refused to criticize (the MRTA) also helped strengthen the case against her.

Is there any sympathy for Berenson in Peru?

There may be sympathy, but it doesn't seem to be widespread. And in a country that's known a lot of deaths and injuries and unfair imprisonment, she seemed like somebody who in that context had been treated rather better than many Peruvians.

What difference did her U.S. citizenship make in the trial?

It gave her a lot more publicity. It didn't seem to be that people held that against her, it wasn't a xenophobic thing. It's not as though they ganged up on her because she was a foreigner.

Her first trial was before hooded judges, and she was sent to a high-altitude prison where nobody should be confined. But again, quite a lot of Peruvians found themselves in the same circumstances, and some of them, in their eyes, may have been more innocent than Berenson was. She seemed to have something to do with the MRTA, and they aren't a non-violent group, though they pretended to be. There is a general fatigue in the population with attempts to achieve an armed solution to Peru's problems.

Why did the Peruvian government agree to a second trial?

The process began under (former president Alberto) Fujimori, when relations with the United States were strained. There were obvious weaknesses and deficiencies in that first trial, including being charged with treason when she wasn't a citizen. But the retrial was a political move; it wasn't an offer extended to everyone else tried by hooded judges. So the view is that she wasn't treated worse; she was treated better.

It did not look to Peruvians like a legal lynching, and this is a country where there is experience with that. They know what that looks like, and it didn't strike them as one of those. This is all happening in an era in which people are very aware of international standards and the possibility of unfair treatment. Human Rights Watch's American division has not singled out her case, and the Peruvian human rights group has not taken up her cause.

Is there a possibility she'll be released on compassionate grounds by the new president?

If I had to guess, I would say she will not serve the full 15 years, but it would be a while before she was released. Nobody found her carrying a gun; she wasn't guilty of killing anybody. It would not be impossible for her to be released early.

Is there still a lot of guerrilla activity in Peru? What is the outlook for the country following the election of Alejandro Toledo as president?

Clearly there are still guerrillas around, but neither the MRTA nor the Shining Path seem for now to have much strength. Peru's main problems today, though, are economic. The issue is creating jobs. That's why Toledo was elected. He fought against Fujimori, and he promised to get the country moving again economically. That's where the attention is, not on overthrowing the state. Lori Berenson has said that the people are still oppressed, still poor. Well, they just had democratic elections, but they are still poor. They are certainly oppressed by their economic circumstances. People have a very hard time getting through the day, and that's where their attention is. Peruvians have high expectations of Toledo. He's going to have to show results pretty soon. They've heard a lot of promises over the years and the results have been spotty. So, nobody is predicting a long honeymoon.