Lori Berenson

From Academic Kids

Lori Helene Berenson (born November 13, 1969) is a U.S. citizen currently serving a 20-year prison term in Peru for terrorism-related crimes. (In Spanish-language news reports and her trial documents, because of Spanish naming practices, she is generally referred to as Lori Berenson Mejía or Lori Berenson Kobeloff).



Berenson was born in New York City to Rhoda and Mark Berenson and studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the early 1990s, she spent several years teaching English and doing translation and secretarial work for human rights organizations in Nicaragua and El Salvador. During the run-up to the 1992 signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords, she worked as an aide to Leonel González, then a top leader of the FMLN left-wing guerrilla group and now the leader of the FMLN faction in the Salvadoran legislative assembly.


On November 30, 1995, Berenson was arrested on a public bus in downtown Lima, Peru. She was accused of collaborating with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) guerrilla organization, which had been officially classified as a terrorist group by the Peruvian government. Posing as a journalist for left-leaning U.S. magazines and accompanied by her photographer — who was actually the wife of Néstor Cerpa, the MRTA second-in-command — Berenson had entered the Peruvian legislature several times during 1995 to gather information. She was accused of providing the MRTA with detailed information on the floor plans of the Peruvian Congress, its security and members, and that she rented an apartment and a house for them to use.

The arrest of the two women happened hours before an all-night siege of the rebel safe house, in which three insurgents and one police officer died and 14 guerrillas were captured. The police claimed that diagrams, notes, weapons and police and military uniforms found at the safe house suggested that the group was planning to seize members of Congress and trade them for captured guerrillas. Police seized from the house rented by Berenson a coded floor plan of Congress drawn by Berenson and a forged Peruvian election ID card bearing her photo.

On January 8, 1996, the DINCOTE (a Peruvian agency created to fight drug trafficking and terrorism) staged a media event in which they showed Berenson to the press. At the event, she appeared defiant and stated that the MRTA was not a criminal terrorist organization but instead a "revolutionary movement". Her statement, given in Spanish, was as follows:

I am to be condemned for my concern for the conditions of hunger and misery that exist in this country. Here nobody can deny that in Peru there is much injustice. There is an institutionalized violence that has killed the people's finest sons and has condemned children to die of hunger. If it is a crime to worry about the subhuman conditions in which the majority of this population lives, then I will accept my punishment. But this is not a love of violence. This is not to be a criminal terrorist because in the MRTA there are no criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement. I love this people. I love this people and although this love is going to make — cost — me years in prison, I will never stop loving, and never will lose the hope and confidence that there will be a new day of justice in Peru.

Due to her tone and attitude, her words sounded like a radical political diatribe. After ten years of seeing the constantly repeated television footage of this scene, most Peruvians believe she was a member of the terrorist MRTA.


Berenson's lawyers argued that she had no prior knowledge of the planned attack, and that she believed that the information she gathered for an article on the Peruvian Congress would be used by the rebels to form a political party. According to Berenson, it was "pure coincidence" that after years of involvement in left-wing politics in Latin America she ended up living at an MRTA safe house where guerrillas engaged in target practice and stockpiled weapons.

Using anti-terrorism legislation enacted during a state of emergency declared by President Alberto Fujimori, Berenson was tried in a closed courtoom by a military tribunal. The proceedings were conducted by a military judge who wore a hood and spoke through a voice distortion apparatus to conceal his identity: one of the "faceless judges" introduced, out of fear of reprisals, for terrorism trials in Peru. On January 11, 1996 (six weeks after her arrest and three days after her presentation to the media) he sentenced her to life in prison for "treason against the fatherland" (traición a la patria) — essentially, the crime of aggravated terrorism. An appeal lodged against the conviction was dismissed on January 30.

In 2000 many Peruvian anti-terrorism laws were declared unconstitutional and about 2,000 cases were overturned and retrials in civilian courts ordered. Berenson's case was heard anew by a civilian court on August 28, 2000. On June 20, 2001, she was sentenced to 20 years, with consideration given for time already served under her prior conviction, for the lesser crime of "collaboration with a terrorist organization". If her current prison sentence stands, it will keep her behind bars until at least 2015, after which she is to be deported from Peru upon release.

Efforts to free Berenson

In 1998, Amnesty International issued a press release declaring Berenson to be a political prisoner. Amnesty criticized the Peruvian anti-terrorism legislation, stating that, "it is unacceptable for hundreds of political prisoners like Berenson not to be able to exercise their basic human right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal."

On July 21, 1999, the United States House of Representatives voted on an amendment to express the sense of Congress that the U.S. should increase support to democracy and human rights activists in Peru, and that it should use all diplomatic means to get the government of Peru to release Berenson. The vote was 189-234 against the amendment (H.Amdt. 330 (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d106:HZ00330:) to the original H.R. 2415 (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d106:H.R.2415:) in the first session of the 106th United States Congress).

When U.S. President George W. Bush traveled to Peru in April 2002 to meet with President Alejandro Toledo, there was pressure on him to search for a humanitarian solution to Berenson's situation, but Bush's ongoing prosecution of a "war on terror" left little likelihood of his arguing on behalf of a U.S. citizen convicted of terrorism abroad. The Peruvian public, after enduring many years of insurgent violence, has little sympathy for anyone connected to terrorism and appears indifferent to her case.

Alleging violations of the American Convention on Human Rights, to which Peru is a party, Berenson's case was referred to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. A seven-hour hearing was held at the court's headquarers in San José, Costa Rica, on May 7, 2004, at which her lawyers, her mother, and representatives of the Peruvian state gave evidence and argued their positions. Her defense team, led by Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general, argued that she should be released because her trials failed to meet international standards for due process, including the fact that she was tried twice for the same crime.

On November 25 2004 (published December 2) the Inter-American Court issued a judgment ruling (inter alia) that:

  1. The Peruvian state had violated Berenson's fundamental right to physical integrity and humane treatment through the detention conditions in which she was held at Yanamayo during the early years of her imprisonment.
  2. Her right to a fair trial and to basic judicial guarantees (including the freedom from ex post facto laws) had been violated by the 1996 proceedings before the "faceless" military courts.
  3. Peru was in breach of Article 2 of the American Convention by failing to enforce the Convention's provisions within its domestic legal system.

However, by six votes to one, the Court found no breaches of Berenson's human rights in the second (civilian) trial, thus dashing the hopes of an early release or the quashing of her conviction that her supporters had entertained. Berenson's supporters believe the Peruvian government exerted pressure on the Court to hand down this decision.

Years in jail

Berenson has spent most of her nine years in prison facilities high in the Andes, some of which are (according to the Inter-American Court's judgment) operated inhumanely. The Yanamayo prison where Berenson was initially held for several years lies at 12,000 feet (3650 m) above sea level near Lake Titicaca in the Puno Region, in southern Peru. Prisoners serving at Yanamayo suffer a high rate of cold-related injuries; confined for up to 23 hours a day in an unheated, unlit concrete cell with glassless windows open to the elements, Berenson's health was seriously affected during her years there, and she continues to suffer from the illnesses that she developed, affecting her digestion, circulation, and eyesight. Thus, one of the rulings of the Inter-American Court's judgment was that the Yanamayo facility be upgraded to comply with "international standards" and that Berenson be provided with the "due specialized medical care" that she requires.

On 7 October 1998 Berenson was moved to another prison in Socabaya. She remained there until 31 August 2000, when she was transferred to the women's prison of Chorrillos in Lima. Then, on 21 December 2002, she was relocated to the maximum-security Huariz Penitentiary in Cajamarca, 350 miles (560 km) north of Lima.

In October 2003, Berenson married Aníbal Apari Sánchez, 40, who because of legal impediments was not present in the wedding and had to be represented by his father Teófilo Apari Cuba. The wedding had 15 guests. Apari Sánchez met Berenson in 1998, when both served prison sentences for terrorism in the Yanamayo jail. In the late 1980s, Apari Sánchez was a leader of the CUAVES ("Comunidad Urbana Autogestionaria de Villa El Salvador"), an organization formed in 1971 after more than 50,000 persons invaded lands destined for residential houses of upper-class people and then were relocated in a desert area without any services, 19 km from Lima, later called Villa El Salvador. Apari Sánchez later joined the MRTA and was eventually arrested and jailed.

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