Berenson: from terrorist to baker

In a post 9/11 world efforts to reduce her 20-year sentence for terrorism in Peru draw little support in the US.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The prisoners at Huacariz penitentiary in northern Peru hold a dance at New Year's, says Mark Berenson: Someone beats out a tune, another sings out loud, and the rest shake their bodies, each alone in a cell, eyes closed - imagining, perhaps, happier years.

It's not Mark who spends New Year's this way. No, he and his wife Rhonda are far away in New York City, and could, if they felt like it, go watch the ball fall in Times Square.

It is their daughter who is behind bars in Peru.

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"I have not celebrated New Year's since Lori went to prison," says Mr. Berenson, on the phone from his Gramercy Park apartment. "I don't feel right about it."

This year Lori Berenson is marking her 10th year in a Peruvian jail. She was convicted by a secret military tribunal of being a member of the terrorist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) in December 1995, at age 26, and sentenced to life without parole. A civilian court retried her in 2001 and found her guilty of a lesser charge - terrorist collaboration - reducing her sentence to 20 years.

But any hopes of further reducing her sentence were crushed in December 2004, when Latin America's top human rights court, the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights, rejected her appeal.

This means Ms. Berenson, who maintains her innocence - claiming she was working as a freelance journalist in Peru at the time - is scheduled to be released in November 2015, a few weeks after her 46th birthday.

Bill Clinton, Elie Wiesel tried to help

Meanwhile, after years of agitation on her behalf, by everyone from President Bill Clinton to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel to more than half the members of Congress, it is clear that, today, while not exactly forgotten, the fiery Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) drop-out has certainly faded from view.

No doubt the Inter-American court ruling took the wind out of the sails of some of her supporters. But the real reason for the loss in appetite in appealing her case, say observers involved, is 9/11 and the war on terrorism. "To the extent anyone focuses on it anymore, they just think 'Ah, a terrorist. Well, we don't want to get involved on the wrong side of that issue,' " says Dennis Jett, US Ambassador to Peru from 1996 to 1999.

Some 70,000 people died here during violence between 1980-2000 instigated by the Shining Path rebels, and to a far lesser extent, the MRTA. The latter's most infamous operation took place a year after Berenson went to jail, when 14 rebels burst into a diplomatic Christmas reception at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, seizing 72 hostages and demanding the release of jailed guerrillas. Berenson was No. 3 on their list.

Ambassador Jett argues that there was "more than a whiff of racism" in the American reaction to the Berenson case during the 90s. "There was an attitude like, 'Look: the poor little funny brown people have a terrorism problem and have gone overboard in dealing with it,' " says Jett, now dean of the International Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

"It was only when we had a terrorism problem [in the US] ourselves that we began to look at it differently." As a society, he says "the US has now gone as overboard in dealing with it as we once accused Peru of doing." Jett points, by way of comparison, at the way another young American terrorist, John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban," was treated by American media and public opinion. "We rallied for Lori - we threw the book at Lindh," he points out.

Mr. Lindh was given a 20-year sentence after he pleaded guilty in 2002 to charges of aiding the Taliban and carrying a rifle and two hand grenades while fighting against the US-backed Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Last week, his lawyers petitioned the Justice Department to reduce his sentence.

"The US had a double standard for a long time," weighs in Admiral Luis Giampietri Rojas, former commander of Peru's Navy seals and one of the embassy hostages in 1996. "If [Berenson] had done such a thing in her own country she would have gotten a much stiffer punishment."

Mark Berenson, a professor at the Montclair State University School of Business in New Jersey, is dismayed by this hardening of opinion towards his daughter - and charges the Inter-American court was influenced by this mood when it turned down her appeal. "The court capitulated to pressure that they would be soft on terrorism. We are in the middle of fighting a global war on terrorism - so, who, at this time wants to be called soft?" he asks.

Anibal Augusto Apari Sanchez, an MRTA member who was released 3 years ago after serving a 13-year sentence met Berenson in jail when he was going to the dentist, and she was on exercise hour on the prison patio. The two married soon after. He shrugs when as asked about the shift in attitude in post-9/11 world and the resurgence of terrorism in the country. He has a simpler explanation for the dwindling of interest in his wife's case: time.

"Lori worries that people think she is a monster," he says, speaking softly. "But the strange thing I found when I got out of jail was that people didn't know who she was anymore, or if they did, they weren't bothered," he says. "Life moves on. There are other problems now, more pressing ones."

She makes fruitcakes 12 hours a day

Mr. Apari visits his wife once a month, taking a 15-hour bus ride in each direction from Lima to reach Huacariz, in the northern city of Cajamarca. Her parents, who have spent their life savings trying to free her, also take turns coming to visit, three times a year each. But otherwise, days are routine and dull for the American prisoner.

Berenson works 12-hour shifts in the prison bakery, making panetones, an Italian-style fruitcake popular in Peru in the Christmas season. She is becoming an expert cake decorator, her father says, and talks about studying nursing when she gets out. She would like to have a family still, he says, and "I would so much like to be a grandfather."

Reached at the bakery during the daily hour she is allowed to receive phone calls, Berenson declined to be interviewed.

"She does not want to draw attention to herself," explains Apari. "She is just getting by day by day. Being out of the spotlight is OK."

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