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Toledo and Bush Must Act on Lori Berenson

President Toledo and Bush Must Act on Lori Berenson

For immediate release Friday, June 22, 2001
Weekend release

01.06

Peruvian President Toledo and G.W. Bush Must Act on Lori Berenson Case

* Peru's justice system far more suspect than American defendant * Berenson case will bedevil U.S.-Peruvian relations * Who is Judge Ibazeta?

Concerned observers in Washington and around the world are watching to see what action will be taken on the Lori Berenson case by incoming president Alejandro Toledo, who takes office on July 28. Toledo will be visiting the U.S. next week, where he will be meeting with a number of political and financial figures concerned with the status of his country's economy, the effectiveness of his country's anti-drug war, and his proposed reforms.

Whatever Toledo's formal agenda may be, he will inevitably face persistent questions about the fate of American Lori Berenson, who was found guilty two days ago of cooperating with leftist guerrillas, but not in carrying out their operations. While this may be a very significant distinction, it is not likely to be reflected in her anticipated 20-year prison term, without the possibility of commutation; nor will it persuade many Americans that a grave injustice has not been committed against this young American woman. This is particularly true because it is widely believed that she was singled out for unusually harsh treatment due to ex-President Fujimori's anxious attempts to show his people that not even the colossus of the north could push Alberto Fujimori around. Many see Berenson as a brave woman unjustly imprisoned under exceedingly harsh conditions, but the majority of Peruvians, who just a few years ago were cheering the Fujimori dictatorship, still view her as a gringa terrorista and resent her alleged involvement with the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).

Whatever the status of the Berenson case may be in Peru, in the U.S., the issue has undergone a sea change. Since a trigger-happy Peruvian airforce officer mistakenly downed a plane carrying U.S. missionaries, thus killing a mother and her child, the U.S. public has now seen hundreds of news programs in the past several weeks on the Berenson case, most of them prejudicial to a good image of Peru. Soon, Toledo will take power in a cash-stripped Peru. He will desperately need outside credits and probably a standby loan from the international lending agencies. Unless the Berenson case is resolved, it could stand as an obstacle between U.S. public opinion and its reluctance to assist Toledo unless he is open to pardoning Berenson and allowing her to come home. Judge Ibazeta Having criticized many of Peru's most basic institutions during his presidential campaign, Toledo is well aware that the extent of Peru's corruption under the Fujimori regime was not limited to secret military courts featuring hooded judges, such as the ones that initially heard the Berenson case. These Star Chamber proceedings were so notorious at the time, that they attracted worldwide criticism. Eventually the State Department, which consistently neglected to speak out strongly on Berenson's behalf, added its voice to this international consensus. This cumulative pressure resulted in Berenson's transfer to a somewhat less horrific penal institution than the one to which she was originally condemned. Since her first conviction, Berenson has served five years of her now-overturned life sentence.

In actuality, her recent trial before a civilian judge marked only a quantitative improvement. The chaotic Peruvian penal system and the courts' poor reputation as hotspots for nepotism and corruption, make the judiciary incapable of dispensing blind justice or providing a level playing field for both plaintiff and defendant. The Fujimori regime was noted for the low caliber of its administration and the venality and incompetence of its judicial system. The main judge in the last round of the Berenson case, Marcos Ibazeta, is hardly an exception to this rule. A recently discovered video links Ibazeta to the president's corrupt regime. In this video, Fujimori's disreputable intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos refers to Berenson's judge as a member of "the team." During his reign, Fujimori discharged judges on the country's constitutional court because they had ruled that the constitution prohibited him from running for the presidency again. Although many judges resigned out of solidarity with their shoddily-treated colleagues, given Ibazeta's reputation as a notorious opportunist and self-promoter, it is unsurprising that he apparently embraced his role as water boy for Fujimori's knaveries. It is he, the sitting judge in this case, who must prove his bona fides as much as Berenson.

The Fujimori years In 1992, after his election to the Peruvian presidency, Alberto Fujimori staged a self-coup, in which he dismantled the country's democratic institutions. Touting the need to eliminate corruption, he shut down Congress, closed the legislature, suspended the constitution and flooded the country's judgeships with his supporters. Fujimori's main objectives as an authoritarian ruler were to eliminate hyperinflation and to gain public support by destroying the country's guerrilla groups, especially the MRTA and the Shining Path. His lasting legacies include opening the state to military influence, sanctioning corruption through the actions of Montesinos, and destroying much of the society's democratic existence.

Because Berenson's trial was conducted during Fujimori's anti-MRTA crusade, it took place in a circus atmosphere without even the slightest element of justice. She was tried by a military court system that had a 97% conviction rate, and was sentenced by hooded (and thereby unaccountable) judges who had little to no legal training. Berenson's lawyer was not permitted to cross-examine witnesses, and the defendant declared that she was never even formally told with what crime she was being charged.

Nevertheless, although a senior military court was forced to recognize the unjust conditions of Berenson's first trial and ultimately granted her a retrial, the government insisted that she was linked to the MRTA and was able to obtain a conviction that condemned her to serve what could be a total of twenty years in a maximum-security prison with no chance of parole.

While Fujimori originally manipulated the Berenson case in order to display his stringent anti-terrorist policies, the defense speculates that he later planned to release Berenson in order to bolster profoundly faltering U.S.-Peruvian relations. In fact, a video recently surfaced revealing Fujimori's then-chief intelligence officer, Montesinos and former Foreign Minister Eduardo Ferrero discussing how to avoid U.S. criticism in the Berenson case, possibly by granting her some type of presidential pardon.

Arrest and Trial Number One In 1994, Berenson arrived in Peru ostensibly to work as a journalist for two small American papers, Modern Times and Third World Viewpoint. On November 30 of the following year, anti-terrorist police entered a public bus and forcibly arrested her on charges of "treason against the fatherland," based on her alleged leadership role in the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).

Berenson stood accused of renting a house in suburban Lima for the MRTA, where she allegedly participated in the negotiation of arms deals and helped plan a takeover of Peru's Congress. Berenson maintains that any interaction between herself and the MRTA was "unintentional" and "circumstantial." Still, a plethora of this "circumstantial" evidence cemented what the government's prosecutor insisted was a strong case against Berenson.

The prosecution also accused Berenson of using her press credentials in order to "case" the Congress building and relay that information to the rebels. The prosecution maintained that Berenson had full knowledge of the MRTA's activities and could not have possibly avoided participating or assisting the rebels whenever possible. Although she pleaded innocence, Berenson still refuses to speak out against the MRTA. Before her conviction in 1996, she impulsively cried out, "There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA. It is a revolutionary movement," which many hastily interpreted as an admission of guilt.

A retrial or a repeat trial? The government may have established that, like millions of U.S. college students, Berenson was a bleeding-heart leftist whose juvenile, ebullient optimism bubbled in all directions, yet it hardly presented a convincing case that she was a hardened and disciplined revolutionary. All along, international observers, as well as Berenson's family, friends and legal advisors, have doubted the ability of Peru's skewed justice system to provide a fair and unbiased trial for the alleged terrorist. Even before the verdict was handed down, Berenson's parents had accused Ibazeta of being biased against their daughter and were expecting a guilty verdict.

Sabrina Blum and Mariah Freark COHA Research Associates The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-partisan and tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the floor of the Senate as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers."

ENDS

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