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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.
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.