Human Rights Court Reviews Berenson Case
NINE years in Peruvian prisons haveyielded U.S. citizen Lori Berenson theopportunity for representation in a casebefore the Inter-American Court of HumanRights in San José.Decrying an anti-terrorism law hecalled “totalitarian,” former U.S. AttorneyGeneral Ramsey Clark, together with attorneyThomas Nooter, argued for Berenson’sfreedom and amends for damages lastweek before the court.Berenson, a 34-year-old New Yorknative, was arrested in 1995 on a publicbus in Lima, Peru, and charged with leadingthe militant rebel group the TupacAmaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).She was accused of posing as a journalistto plan an attack on the Congress, towhich she responded that she was a freelancejournalist for two New York publicationsand was not a member of MRTA.A military tribunal convicted Berensonunder anti-terrorist legislation passed threeyears prior by then-President AlbertoFujimori to control government opposition.She was convicted of treason and sentencedto life in prison.Pressured by human-rights organizationssuch as Amnesty International andmovements built around her case in theUnited States and elsewhere, Berensonwas given another trial in a civilian court.She was found guilty again and sentencedto 20 years in prison. She has beenshuffled through four prisons to date, landingfinally in the Huacariz Prison in Cajamarcaat an altitude of 9,000 feet. She spentmonths in isolation and on one occasion,according to the Free Lori Web site, wasbeaten, tear-gassed and sexually molested.High altitudes and extreme cold havetaken a toll on her health, and her supporterssay she has suffered chronic strepthroat, gastrointestinal problems andarthritis, among other sicknesses.IN 2002, the Inter-American Commissionon Human Rights in Washington,D.C., denounced both the military and thecivilian trials, declaring them illegal byinternational standards, and called theprison conditions inhumane.The commission said Peru did notgrant Berenson her right to due process andfailed to demonstrate evidence against her.The commission requested that her rightsbe restored and that the government amendits anti-terrorism laws.When the country disputed the request,the commission referred the case to theInter-American Court.Mark and Rhoda Berenson, Lori’s parents,traveled to Costa Rica to attend thehearing last week and told The Tico Timesthat both the arrest and the second trial werepolitically motivated, used to bolster thepublic opinion of ex-President Fujimori.Touting it as a feather in his cap,Fujimori waved Berenson’s passport in frontof television cameras after her arrest anddeclared that a U.S. citizen would receivePeruvian justice, Berenson’s father said.LATER, Peruvian newspaper headlinesquoted Alejandro Toledo, who wenton to become President of Peru, as sayingthat Berenson’s re-trial, which took effectafter Fujimori was reelected, was a“smokescreen” to deflect attention from anarms scandal in which Fujimori and hisadministration were immersed at the time.Toledo, however, now defends the trial,saying that Berenson was given her right todue process, according to the New YorkbasedVillage Voice newspaper.“How could Lori’s trial have had dueprocess when these laws were begun byFujimori for the evil purpose of putting allopposition in jail?” Mr. Berenson asked lastweek. “Democracy requires justice and justlaws and requires Peru to change these laws.”CLARK told The Tico Times duringhis stay in Costa Rica last week that thecrux of the commission’s argument is thelegality of the Fujimori laws.“(Fujimori) suspended the Constitutionand wrote a law to fight government opposition…It’s totalitarian. Ademocratic societyshould never tolerate such a law toarrest anybody and not say why,” he said.The law’s definition of terrorism is somurky, he added, that it is impossible toknow what is legal and what is not.He said it “would be tragic if a court createdto protect human rights in the hemispherewould validate this law. It would happenonly in a climate of fear of terrorism.”Clark linked the Peruvian government’sreluctance to modify the law to theU.S. war on terrorism and U.S. PresidentGeorge Bush’s anti-terrorism policies.Anti-terrorism laws such as Peru’s arebeing considered throughout LatinAmerica as a means of controlling oppositionto government, he said.JUAN Pablo Barragán, an Ecuadorancitizen and coordinator of a signature campaignfor Berenson, has rounded up thesupport of several human-rights organizationsand two Nobel Peace Prize winnersfor ridding the Americas of such policies.The signatures are attached to an amicuscuriae (friend of the court) brief presented tothe San José-based court, and include thenames of representatives of lawyers’ unions,human rights and support groups.“Terrorism has been a great excuse torepress, shut down and control people,”Barragán said.AN excerpt of the brief states, “Sincethe terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, …inNew York… the so-called ‘war on terrorism’of the United States has not only created…radical laws and procedures, buthas… pressured members of the OAS(Organization of American States), especiallyColombia, to create similar legislation.These facts and reactions represent aserious threat to human rights.”Clark said he expects Peru will abideby the Inter-American Court’s ruling,expected in the coming months.Although Peru rejected a ruling fromthe Inter-American Court of Human Rightson a different case in 1999, currentPresident Toledo has agreed to abide by theupcoming decision on the Berenson case,according to Clark.
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