Lori Berenson Speaks

For Five Years Peru Has Jailed Berenson As Terrorist

Lori Berenson was just 26 years old when she was sentenced to life for helping to plan a terrorist attack on Peru's congress. It's a crime she says she did not commit.

"The charges against me are preposterous and they're obviously false," Berenson said. "I am not a terrorist by any means; quite the contrary I do not believe in any act of terrorism."

Peter Van Sant brings an exclusive interview from Peru.

"I believe in human beings," said Lori Berenson. "I believe in the rights of justice. I believe that everyone has the right to live with dignity."

The government of Peru is convinced this young American is an enemy of the state.

"There should be a right to be able to eat, a right to medical a right to schooling," Berenson said.

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Those thoughts if expressed in the United States are no big deal. In some other countries, however, they can be threatening. "Yes, that seems to (be) the case in Peru for example," Berenson declared.

By any standard, Lori Berenson's last five years in prison have been brutal.

"I was in a very dark place; I was isolated," she said. "For almost two years I was not allowed to see anyone, hear anyone, talk to anyone," she added. "It was harsh and cold."

Berenson was kept in a special prison for terrorists located 13,000 feet high in the Andes Mountains; the altitude took its toll.

And her health is declining, including her hands. "They're discolored; they bleed," she said. "Throat problems, stomach problems, they are very common."

"For a year and a half she was allowed one half hour in the sun and in a cold concrete cell 23 and a half hours a day," said her father. "It's ghoulish. It's inhumane to put peopl there."

Since their daughter's arrest, Mark and Rhoda Berenson have put their lives on hold. They left their jobs as college professors to lobby public officials and the media to fight for the release of their youngest daughter.

"Continually working to get Lori home is what keeps me sane," said Rhoda Berenson.

"Essentially my life 24/7 is about Lori," father Mark Berenson added.

Lori grew up in New York City with a love of music. As a young girl, she appeared on a children's show.

When Lori was in the eighth grade, she volunteered in a soup kitchen and narrated a commercial for the international service group CARE. "Over half the children on Earth are hungry and malnourished," she said in the ad.

"That was really a crucial point in her life," her mother recalled. "She said the thought of starving children has haunted her ever since."

Lori Berenson was a brilliant student who went to college at MIT. But as she became more politically active, she left school for El Salvador in 1992, where a brutal civil war was winding down.

During the war in El Salvador, there were two sides. The side of the government and the side of the FMLN, a Marxist guerrilla group. "I sided with the search for justice," Berenson said.

For Berenson that meant joining the guerrilla movement and working for one of its top leaders. In 1994, she moved onto another troubled country, Peru.

"There is a lot of poverty. There's a lot of social injustice," she said.

Though the government there has said she was a frustrated radical looking for a revolution, she claimed that's not true.

Peru was in chaos; thousands were killed at the hands of terrorists like the Marxist guerilla group the MRTA.

"You can not imagine," Alberto Bustamante, Peru's minister of justice. "Everybody with a generalized panic." He added, "Every day was a bomb. Every day was people being killed."

Many more died as the right-wing government of Alberto Fujimori fought back. Bustamante said 25,000 were killed.

When she arrived in Peru, Berenson chose to live in a house in La Molina. Five years ago the government said this was the headquarters of the MRTA.

On Nov. 30, 1995, police raided the La Molina house. There was a fierce firefight with MRTA members inside. When it was over, authorities said they discovered a huge cache of weapons. Berenson claimed she knew nothing about any terrorist activities at the house.

Some might find it hard to believe that she was unaware of these weapons. "If I live in the house 24 hours a day and spent my life spying on other people in the house, sure," she said. "I really never saw anything unusual. I went to my room. And that's the only thing I did."

Mario Cavagnario, chief investigator in the Berenson case, claimed she was part of the organization. "All the people around her in Peru belong to the MRTA In Spanish we say: Tell me who you run with and I'll tell you who you are."

Berenson accompanied an alleged gun runner for the MRTA Pacifico Castrellon when he rented the La Molina house. "We were friends," she said.

According to Peruvian press reports they were lovers. But, Castrellon, now in prison, has turned on Berenson and says she is an MRTA member.

"He was not my lover," Berenson said. "In general when people are detained in Peru they usually get a whole bunch of lovers, whatever....It's part of the soap opera of politics."

The government claims Berenson was gathering intelligence on Peru's congress while posing as a journalist. "I've worked as a journalist," though she's never had anything published. Berenson said. "I was trying to write articles," she added, noting it was more self-satisfying than monetary.

On Nov. 30, 1995, Berenson had spent the day in the congress. When she left, she wasn't alone. With her was the wife of Nestor Cerpa, the leader of the MRTA terrorist organization.

The two were later arrested by anti-terrorist police. But Berenson claimed that she never knew her friend had a connection to the MRTA.

When asked if the people she socialized with were members of the MRTA, she said, "That wasn't to my knowledge at the time."

Van Sant noted that he would have to conclude that she was naïve for him to believe her.

"I don't think it's a question of being naïve," Berenson said. "I mind my own business."

More on Berenson
The Nation recently reported on the Berenson case.

For Lori Berenson's parents her arrest was a nightmare. "It was an absolute horror," said her mother. "She was going to be tried for treason and terrorism."

"It didn't make any sense to me," she added.

They rushed to Lima, Peru, to show their support.

"Lori is not, not, not a violent person," declared mother Rhoda Berenson.

Within weeks, Lori Berenson was brought before a court. All the judges wore hoods because they said they feared reprisals from the guerillas.

"We were lined up in a room where...behind each chair, there were rifles, like, which thepointed basically at our heads," she said.

The trial lasted just minutes.

How much preparation did her attorney have for the trial? "Oh nothing," she said. "I don't think he ever knew what I was being charged of either." He did not see the evidence, she added.

There was no cross examination of witnesses and she was not allowed to make a statement, Berenson said, adding there was no due process.

But then came a moment that even Berenson's supporters say undermined her claims of innocence. While awaiting her verdict, Berenson was paraded before the press. And she exploded with rage.

"In the MRTA," she shouted, "there are no criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement."

Van Sant pointed out in his interview that she could have said she's innocent but she took that opportunity to defend that organization that is a terrorist group.

"Seen in the social context, I had no reason to believe that they were a terrorist organization," Lori Berenson replied.

Van Sant asked if she was aware then that the MRTA had kidnapped, held people hostage and had murdered. Said Berenson: "No. No. No."

But she knows now.

When asked by Van Sant if she was prepared to denounce the MRTA, she replied, "I don't see why I have to denounce the MRTA."

Said Berenson: "To murder innocent people, I'm not saying that is correct. But what I'm saying is, in the general context, trying to change one's life is not necessarily...wrong."

Three days after her outburst, Berenson was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

"I actually thought it was ridiculous. My feelings at that moment was this was off the wall," she said.

"The bottom fell out from our world," said her mother.

Twice a month for the last five years, the Berensons have made the long trip to Peru to vist and care for their daughter.

"We brought fruit and vegetables. Fresh fruit is not provided by the prison," said Rhoda Berenson, who has just published a book about the family's ordeal.

"Lori is innocent. She should be sent home. It's enough already," said Rhoda Berenson.

And there are some indications the Peruvian government is tiring of the case. Just last month it set aside Lori Berenson's life sentence and ordered a new trial in civilian court. The government now says she was not a leader of the rebel group. But officials say they have enough evidence to prove she was helping to plan the attack against the congress.

Lori Berenson and a guard

Authorites say they have a seating chart of Congress drawn in Lori Berenson's handwriting.

"I have not seen this before," Lori Berenson said.

But the government says an event, one year after Lori Berenson's imprisonment, says the most about the true nature of her association with the terrorists. The MRTA took over the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima. During the crisis, the release of Lori Berenson was near the top of the rebel leader's demands.

Why would he ask for Lori Berenson to be released if she weren't a follower, a member of the MRTA or at least a comrade?

"I actually don't know," she said. "I'm not a follower. I'm not a comrade. I'm not anything."

Writing Lori Berenson
Lori Berenson can receive letters written in Spanish only. Send mail to her at this address:

Free Lori
110 Maryland Ave. NE 102
Washington, D.C. 20002

But in the last 24 hours, 48 Hours has obtained new information that appears to contradict Lori Berenson's assertions. A high-ranking American contacted 48 Hours with information he says links her directly to the terrorists. The source says the terrorist leader admitted using Berenson for "intelligence collection."

There's no way to confirm this with the rebel leader himself. He was killed when Peruvian troops retook the Japanese ambassador's residence.

No matter what sources say, one thing is clear, at her upcoming trial, Lori Berenson will stand by her story and her beliefs.

"I've got my principles, and I've got to live by my principles. I've got my conscience and I've got it clean," she said.

See the Berensons' reaction to the 48 Hours interview.