Good News at Last from Peru

Good News at Last from Peru

Lori Berenson’s parole was confirmed by judges in Peru on January 24. For 15 years she has been shown support by Global Ministries.   Resolutions calling for her release were voted in General Assembly and General Synod. It is expected that she will have to remain in Peru with her 18 month old son, Salvador for the five years remaining in her unjustly harsh sentence.

As former president of DOM, I became interested in Lori Berenson and contacted her parents in New York as soon as I read about her arrest in Lima.   It was 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 a guerilla movement, I knew that she could have been any one of the young people that mainline churches had sent overseas as mission personnel and interns since the 1970’s. I knew that Lori’s solidarity with the poor of Latin America was the same as ours, whether her motivation was religious or not.  And after all, how could it not be?

In response to the Berensons, I was part of a clergy delegation to US and Peruvian officials in 1999 and later visited her several times in three different prisons, most recently with area executive Felix Ortiz and former missionary to Paraguay Frisco Gilchrist.  In addition to prison visits to Lori and others she  recommended, Global Ministries allocated funds for legal assistance and rehabilitation programs for ex-prisoners at her request.

Lori went to Peru in 1994 as a writer experienced in Central America and had contact with persons under assumed names who turned out to be part  of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).  On November 30, 1995, she was arrested on a city bus in Lima, while siege was laid to a house used by the guerilla movement, which she had rented.  She was sentenced the following January to life imprisonment for “treason” by a secret military tribunal of hooded judges.  Lori and twenty other defendants had no opportunity to cross-examine witnesses or to defend themselves legally. She was presented on television, where her strong denial that MRTA was a terrorist organization led to her reputation as a dangerous person, sensationalized through the years by the media for political reasons.  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 serious medical problems, and after nearly three years, she was moved to a prison at a somewhat lower altitude near Arequipa, then to the Maximum Security Women’s Prison in Lima.

In August 2000, after then-president Fujimori’s disgrace and flight to Japan, Lori’s life sentence was overturned, and the military tribunal was 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.  In 2002, she was transferred to a prison in Cajamarca, where she married by proxy a released prisoner and was moved back to Lima in 2009 for the birth of their son.

Interviews with Lori by the international press emphasize that she was never involved in violence and does not believe that social change can come by use of weapons.   They tend to confuse the MRTA with the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) in the armed struggle of the 1980s and 90s that took 70,000 lives. The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission attributed 54% of human rights violations to the Shining Path, 45% to government and paramilitary forces, and 1.5% to the MRTA.

Unfortunately, the political circumstances of Peru then and now are not well-known in North America, and the public fails to realize that many good people were part of rebel movements there and elsewhere.  Having paid the penalty, unfair or not, Lori Berenson deserves our respect and will find ways to use her experience for social justice and the welfare of others.

Bill Nottingham, president emeritus DOM
Highlands Ranch, Colorado