ON Jan. 11, 26-year-old Lori Helene Berenson, a Manhattan resident with an MIT education, was sentenced to life in prison by a military tribunal in Lima, Peru. The basic accusation, which she has admitted, was collaboration with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), in their attempt to kidnap members of the Peruvian Congress. (The MRTA goal was to exchange the hostages for the revolutionaries' jailed leadership.) A few days previously, Ms. Berenson's companion, a Panamanian citizen, received the same sentence for the same offense.
Predictably, Berenson's trial and sentence have raised an uproar on the left, led by Ramsey Clark, the well-known apologist for Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Mr. Clark has been joined by the New York Times and Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, the latter proclaiming that Berenson's trial and sentence have brought into doubt Peru's ''commitment to basic democratic principles and human rights.''
In fact, what the episode has brought to the fore is the arrogance, irresponsibility, and consistent abuse of the ''human rights'' issue by doctrinaire American ''progressives.'' Even the State Department, which should know better, has joined in ''regretting'' that Berenson was not tried by a civilian court. Interestingly, this same State Department seems to have no complaints about Colombia's use of faceless judges in combatting drug trafficking.
Why were Berenson and her companion tried by military courts? Why were they, foreigners, tried for treason? And why were the identities of their judges kept secret? Latin Americans know the answers to those questions, and that is why the Panamanian government saw no reason to protest the conviction and sentencing of its national. When Americans likewise understand the answers to those questions, whatever sympathy they feel for Berenson will quickly dissipate.
The explanations begin in 1980, when democracy was restored to Peru and the country was targeted by the Western Hemisphere's bloodiest communist terrorist organization: the Maoist Shining Path. Starting in 1982, the MRTA joined the Shining Path in its attempt to destroy Peruvian society. Berenson joined the MRTA after the failure of her former pet causes - Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan terrorist groups.
The ''revolutionary'' contributions of Berenson's chosen terrorist group include bank robberies, kidnappings, and killings, including the assassination of a retired defense minister and the nearly successful murder of a US ambassador. With Cuban and Sandinista help, the MRTA also tried to expand Marxist terrorism throughout South America. In addition, the MRTA has participated in drug trafficking on a massive scale. The group has long been declared a terrorist organization by the State Department.
The toll of such ''revolutionary'' activities, over the last 15 years, has been the death of some 30,000 Peruvians. By way of comparison, in a country the size of the United States, that would translate into an Oklahoma bombing every three days.
Peru's justice system, when it functioned at all, became part of the problem. Witnesses were murdered, judges and their families were routinely intimidated, bought off, or pressured by leftist politicians. Prominent terrorist leaders were systematically released, particularly when they happened to be related to influential politicians or clergymen, or, in the MRTA's case, when they were linked to the former ruling party.
All of this came to an abrupt end in 1990, with the election of Alberto Fujimori as president. Terrorism was declared an act of treason (even when committed by a foreign citizen), and military tribunals replaced the discredited civilian courts. The identities of witnesses and judges were shielded, and terrorists' ability to intimidate them disappeared. Such tactics may be alien to Americans, but they worked. Virtually all the MRTA and Shining Path leaders are now serving life sentences, and both organizations have nearly collapsed. Peruvians, particularly the poor, seem to approve: Mr. Fujimori and his party were freely reelected in a landslide last year.
No one denies that Berenson has been treated at least as well as, if not better than, her fellow ''revolutionaries.'' Like them, she was charged with treason; like them, she was tried by a military court; like them, she faced judges protected by anonymity. Unlike her comrades, she was allowed to see her family every day and had regular visits from the US Embassy.
To her credit, Berenson herself wants to be treated like her fellow terrorists - and she deserves it. The laws under which she was prosecuted and the tribunals that convicted her were established by democratically elected legislative bodies. Since 1992, the laws have been applied to the rich and poor alike. As for human rights, the only rights that have been violated in this case are the rights violated by the brutal terrorists of the MRTA, whom Lori Berenson freely chose to join.