Lori Berenson's 2000 Prison Interview

American Jailed in Peru Spoke Exclusively to "48 Hours"

In 2000, five years after being jailed in Peru for treason, Lori Berenson spoke exclusively with "48 Hours" correspondent Peter Van Sant. The interview aired Oct. 19, 2000.

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," Lori Berenson said. "I am not a terrorist by any means; quite the contrary I do not believe in any act of terrorism. I believe in human beings. 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 told Van Sant.

May 24, 2010: Peru Paroles Lori Berenson

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 explained in 2000. "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," her father, Mark Berenson, said. "It's ghoulish. It's inhumane to put people 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 she 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. 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," said Alberto Bustamante, Peru's minister of justice in 2000. "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.