What's on Trial in Peru

The case of Lori Berenson, imprisoned for more than four years in Peru, has attracted international attention. This is partly because of the inherent drama in an American activist - some would say radical - getting caught up in another country's civil strife, and paying a high price.

Just as important is what her case says about still-lagging respect for human rights in parts of Latin America.

The extent of Ms. Berenson's involvement with the Tpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement is a matter of debate. Her sympathies for the Marixst group's cause, loudly expressed at the time of her arrest, probably helped get her a life sentence during the Peruvian government's draconian crackdown on insurgencies in the mid-1990s.

There's no question, however, that the means used to imprison Berenson were unjust. She was convicted by a closed military court and given no opportunity to present a defense. So it's encouraging that authorities now have voided her life sentence and granted her a new trial in civilian court.

Still, like its recent presidential election, Peru's ability to hold a fair trial is suspect. The courts are thought to be under the thumb of President Alberto Fujimori, who has vowed to keep Berenson in jail. His decision to allow Berenson a new trial may just be a way to deflect US criticism.

Without prejudging that trial, the information that has come out concerning Berenson's activities in Peru, such as a recent analysis of previously undisclosed court records in The Nation magazine, leaves much doubt that she was a Tpac Amaru ringleader and co-conspirator, as the military judges concluded. This suggests, at the least, that the charges against Berenson, and her life sentence, were excessive, and perhaps unfair.

Peruvians generally have had little sympathy for Berenson's plight, but above all, they want to put years of unrest and terror firmly behind them.

A fair trial for Berenson this time around should help them do that.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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