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2000-01-11

Lori Berenson Reaches 4th Anniversary in Peruvian Prison

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Today marks four years since a hooded Peruvian military tribunal sentenced American Lori Berenson to life in prison. Accused of treason, Berenson was convicted on evidence she was not allowed to see. Amnesty International has declared her a political prisoner, saying she was denied a fair trial and due process. The United Nations Commission for Human Rights has also written that Lori Berenson is being arbitrarily detained and deprived of her liberty. Today, protests are being held around the country, including a rally at the United Nations. [includes rush transcript]

Guests:

  • Carolyn Maloney, Congresswoman from New York.
  • Mark Berenson, father of Lori Berenson.
  • Ramsey Clarke, attorney for Lori Berenson.
  • Tim Moore, spokesperson for the State Department.

Supporters of Lori Berenson web page: www.freelori.org

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today marks four years since a hooded Peruvian military tribunal sentenced American Lori Berenson to life in prison. Accused of treason, Berenson was convicted on evidence she was not allowed to see. Amnesty International has declared her a political prisoner, saying she was denied a fair trial and due process. United Nations Commission for Human Rights has also written that Lori Berenson is being arbitrarily detained and deprived of her liberty. Today, protests are being held around the country, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Miami, Denver, New York and Massachusetts, as well.

We are joined right now by Lori’s father, Mark Berenson, as well as her attorney, Ramsey Clark, former Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mark Berenson, you must remember September 11, 1996 very well. Mark, are you with us? Ramsey Clark, are you there?

RAMSEY CLARK: Yes, I am. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, hi. It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about exactly what Lori Berenson was charged with?

RAMSEY CLARK: She was charge with a crime that’s generally translated as treason, sometimes as aggravated terrorism. Neither charge was supported [inaudible] the public, but she was convicted in a secret proceeding in which the members of the tribunal and the prosecution and others in attendance wore hoods, so you couldn’t even tell who they were. She didn’t hear any evidence against her, herself, and she wasn’t permitted to present evidence in her own defense.

AMY GOODMAN: You recently went down to Peru. Where does the case stand now?

RAMSEY CLARK: There are several things going on that are hopeful, but after four years it’s a little late for hope; it’s time for action. There’s an Inter-American Human Rights Commission proceeding that we have every confidence will result in another condemnation of Peruvian government for its military tribunals and judicial systems, generally. We have a petition pending. It’s, in a sense, the usual sort of thing that goes on in these types of cases before the military tribunal, but we’re optimistic about it, actually, so that we’re pressing hard and we hope for some breakthroughs and favorable action soon.

AMY GOODMAN: We do have Lori Berenson’s father, Mark Berenson, on the line right now. Mark, can you go back to January 11, 1996, and tell us what that day was like?

MARK BERENSON: That was one of the worse days of my life. I was to teach a class, and in thirty years of teaching, I think I missed class twice to illness, and when they announced that Lori had a life sentence, I could not go in to teach my class. It was a terrible, terrible blow to us.

She had no justice in that country. That country is incapable of providing justice, and I would love our government to be more energetic and proactive in insisting that Lori, who has been wrongfully detained now for 1,504 days today, which comes out to 215 weeks tomorrow, and fifty months in two more weeks, that Lori, be freed.

The United Nations High Commission on Human Rights has said she’s arbitrarily detained. As Ramsey mentioned, the OAS case has been for a while in limbo, because of Peru’s shenanigans and attempts to pull out of the Inter-American Human Rights Court in San Jose, Costa Rica. And Peru’s disdain for democracy and democratic principles and human rights has been widely acknowledged, yet our State’s Department’s position, as I read in the papers, is that they are playing a neutral role that Peru can interpret its constitution the way it wants to. I guess that’s how you treat an ally, when you have a foreign policy that is not realistic and not just, and I feel that way about our State Department’s foreign policy in many areas of this world.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s hear from the State Department. We wanted to have them on. They said they wouldn’t go on, but they would read a statement. This is Tim Moore, a spokesperson for Western Hemispheric Affairs at the State Department.

TIM MOORE: Lori Berenson’s case remains an important part of our diplomatic dialogue with Peru. We will continue to do all that we can to seek a fair and open trial for Ms. Berenson in a civilian court and, meanwhile, to see that her prison living conditions are as humane as possible. For any further details, though, on her situation, we would have to refer you to Ms. Berenson’s family.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you say specifically what the State Department has done in the last months on her case to get her free?

TIM MOORE: That would come under the heading of, you know, our communications with other governments, and we never comment on that. I’m sorry. This is really all I can say. It’s prepared guidance and, you know, it’s been approved, and that’s what it is.

AMY GOODMAN: And that is Tim Moore, a spokesperson for the State Department. Mark Berenson, your response, trying to make Lori Berenson’s living conditions livable in Peruvian prison.

MARK BERENSON: Well, they visit her every three months. They haven’t been calling her. She is incommunicado, because if we’re not there, and Rhoda and I have been going every two or three weeks over the past fifteen months that she’s been at Arequipa, And otherwise, she’s essentially in solitary confinement. There are two other women, political prisoners who are Sendero Luminoso and don’t talk with people who are not from that group, so —

AMY GOODMAN: Sendero Luminoso being the Shining Path.

MARK BERENSON: Shining Path, yeah. They stay to themselves, and Lori has minimal communication with them, like "how’s the weather" kind of thing. But first has been in essential solitary confinement, isolation now for fifteen months, and she’s unhappy about that, and rightfully so, and our State Department says that they do everything to make her living conditions more amenable, and, you know, we’d like to see some of that actually put to action, some of those words that are just words. And for them to say about a fair and public trial, I’ll let Ramsey Clark discuss that.

I would like everyone to just read the State Department’s Annual Report on Peru, which came out last February, Section E, Denial of a Fair Public Trial. I’ll read a quote from the State Department’s own words: "The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However, in practice, the judicial system is inefficient, often corrupt and easily manipulated by the executive branch." And then it goes on to say — this is the State Department — "Further tightening the executive grips on the judicial system, the Peruvian Congress passed a law transferring power to dismiss judges and prosecutors to the judiciary branch of — to the judiciary ministry of the Peruvian government, which is picked, hand-picked by the executives."

So that’s what I’m reading from the State Department’s Annual Report on Peru, and then you just heard the words of State Department spokesperson, Tim Moore. I’m scratching my bald head at the moment. I went to college. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that there’s a discrepancy here, and I think Ramsey can answer this better than I can.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ramsey Clark, specifically what are you calling for now? What would you like to see happen to Lori Berenson, your client?

RAMSEY CLARK: Well, obviously our overwhelmingly first priority is her freedom. She’s lost an enormous chunk of a free life already, for such a young person. I mean, virtually one day out of eight in her life, an eighth of her life, has been spent in prisons in Peru. While she’s done some good there, she’s called more attention to the cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions there, which are the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the other factor during these four years, she ought to be free. Her health’s been impaired, there’s no basis in truth or justice or law, for that matter, for holding her in prison.

We’re anxious that the United States government do its duty. Congress, long, long ago, enacted a statute that imposes a duty on the President, whenever an American citizen is wrongfully held abroad, to first request an explanation for the basis for their being held, and if it’s not a satisfactory response or no response, then to take all action, short of war, to obtain the freedom of that person.

And our government has basically done nothing. It’s talked a little bit, but very little, in spite of the fact that her wrongful detention is beyond question. I mean, the UN Human Rights Commission, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and Court, both have held that this conviction and similar convictions of others are simply unlawful, because they violate standards of international due process in law.

So we want to press now as hard as possible to get the United States government to do its duty. And when you think of Cuba today with hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people protesting because United States is wrongfully holding a youngster whose grandparents and only surviving parent live there, and here in the United States a daughter of our country held wrongfully, and we barely say a mumbling word.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think the US is saying so little about Lori Berenson’s life sentence in Peru, of which she has now served four years?

RAMSEY CLARK: Well, the main reason is that, cruelly and dangerously, our foreign policy experts place very little value on the rights of individuals, including individual citizens, and base nearly all of their conduct on what they think of as geopolitical considerations, what’s in the best interest overall of the United States, and we support that government.

We have always supported President Fujimori. He’s — FDR’s famous phrase — our SOB there. And we rely on him for many things, and we’re not willing to affect in any way that relationship by doing what’s right. I mean, we call ourselves a country founded on principle, and the principle is individual freedom. And yet, when one of our citizens is deprived of her freedom abroad, we support the government that’s wrongfully holding her.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ramsey Clark, I want to thank you for being with us, former US Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson. Now, among others, he represents Lori Berenson, who has been sentenced to life in prison in Peru. When we come back, we’re going to speak to Carolyn Maloney, a New York Congress member who went to visit Lori Berenson. And then we’ll get a final word from her father, Mark Berenson, about the grassroots activism that is taking place around the country today on the fourth anniversary of Lori Berenson’s sentencing. You are listening to Pacific Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Pacific Radio’s Democracy Now!, the Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman.

Coming up, in just a few minutes we’re going to talk about the first official execution in the world in this century, and it took place last night in Virginia. The young man was seventeen at the time he was put on death row. His name was Chris Thomas. He was killed last night at about 9:00, and we’re actually going to hear him talking about his imminent death in an interview done before his execution. And we’re going to hear about another person who was about seventeen the time he committed his crime, who will be executed unless something intervenes or someone intervenes on Thursday night.

But before we do all that, we’re sticking with the story of Lori Berenson, and just a little while ago I had a chance to talk to Carolyn Maloney, who is a New York Democratic Congress member, who actually went down to visit Lori Berenson in Peru in prison, and she has been fighting on her behalf. This is what she had to say.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Today marks the fourth year anniversary of her unjust imprisonment in Peru. She was convicted by a hooded military tribunal that denied her the right to present evidence or witnesses. Her lawyer could not cross-examine witnesses against her or make an argument in her defense. She was denied basic due process.

I have visited Lori in prison once, and at that time she was held high in the Yanamayo Prison, high in the Andes. They have moved her to another bad situation, where she was held in solitary confinement for 120 days. I have met with President Fujimori, with members of his administration and with members of the Peruvian Parliament. I have also organized efforts by my colleagues in Congress, and many, many of my colleagues joined me in signing a letter to Madeleine Albright. Over half the members of Congress signed the letter on Lori’s behalf. And last May, shortly after the UN High Commission on Human Rights determined that the Peruvian government had deprived her of her liberty arbitrarily, 176 of my colleagues joined me in a letter to President Clinton urging him to take all necessary steps to secure Lori’s release.

We have to just continue the pressure. We must continue to use our influence to let Peru know that we care about Lori. I know that Lori will come home, and when she does, it will be because Americans continued to fight for her freedom. That’s what we’re doing today. We are speaking out. We are writing letters. We are continuing our efforts to free Lori Berenson.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the Clinton administration? I went down to see Lori last March.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Oh, you did?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. I was the first journalist who ever got in to see her and—

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: You’re at WBAI?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Pacifica Radio overall, based here at WBAI.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Oh, good for you, I didn’t know that.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: I saw her, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, and you had seen her before me, and when I saw, at the time —

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: I’m surprised they let you in.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, well—

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: They gave me a hard time getting in.

AMY GOODMAN: It was a real fluke, and this was Arequipa Prison, after she was at Yanamayo. At the time, it was US Ambassador Jett, who has now been replaced, but he, to say the least, was extremely hostile to the whole issue of Lori Berenson, had never visited her, was not supportive of or having gone to see her. And I’m just wondering, overall, is there any progress that has been made within the Clinton administration itself, your own party, in really pushing forward this issue? It doesn’t seem — I mean, Jett himself said at the time, when Clinton had just met with Fujimori, that he had not raised the issue of Lori Berenson.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Well, in ’97, nearly half of the members of the House signed a letter to Secretary Madeleine Albright on her behalf, and 176 of my colleagues last May joined me in a letter to President Clinton, urging him to take all necessary steps to help her.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is your understanding of what he’s done?

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Members in the State Department indicate that they have been talking to the Peruvian government and working for her release.

AMY GOODMAN: We are now entering the fourth year, and yet rarely do we get a public statement on the part of President Clinton or Gore or Madeleine Albright. You’re meeting with US Ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke. Will you be raising it with him?

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: I will mention it with him. The meeting — the purpose of our meeting today is the talks at the United Nations on peace and justice in Cyprus and the Aegean, but I will raise the issue with him.

AMY GOODMAN: There is an act of Congress years ago that said a US president, short of war, would do everything in his power to free a US citizen held unjustly by another country. And certainly, that is the case with Lori Berenson. She’s never seen the evidence against her, as you said, tried by a hooded judge, a gun to her head when they read the sentence. What would it take to move the administration to put this issue on the front burner?

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: 176 members of Congress, at my urging, joined me in a letter to President Clinton really based on that statute, urging him to take all necessary steps, short of going to war, to secure Lori’s release. We have reached out to him, to members of the Cabinet. I met with Ambassador Jett several times. I have not met with the new ambassador, but we intend to keep up the pressure and to use our efforts and influence to let Peru know that many of us care very deeply about Lori and are still working very hard for her release.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the administration, in continuing its military relationship with Peru, simply does not want to raise the issue of Lori Berenson, because that would somehow jeopardize what’s going on militarily, and in other ways, between the United States and Peru?

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: I believe it has been raised many times with Peru. The concern of many residents, her parents, our constituents, they’ve become friends over the last four years that we’ve worked together. They contacted me a few days after her arrest, and since then I’ve been working with them for justice, for a fair trial, for release of Lori Berenson. I believe it’s been raised several times with Mr. Fujimori and the Peruvian government. I know that Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Benjamin Gilman, and myself, raised it to him when we went to Peru jointly, in a bipartisan way, in support of her release.

AMY GOODMAN: Would it be any different if it was a Republican administration that you were up against, when it came to her case?

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: The resistance is coming from the Peruvian government, not the American government. The American government has supported her release and her return to the United States. And they have supported that. Mr. Fujimori and his government have refused to not only grant her a traditional trial, where her lawyer would have the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and to make arguments in her defense, they have denied her the basic due process trial and review of her case. Many elected officials, well over 176, have called for that.

AMY GOODMAN: I guess today we’re watching Al Gore make the case of Elian Gonzalez a very big issue, saying he shouldn’t be returned to Cuba. So you have the Vice President speaking out nationally on that issue. But you never have that kind of political capital spent on the case of Lori Berenson, who’s been held for four years.

And I’m just wondering what it would take, and if you think perhaps that aid to Peru should be conditioned on Lori Berenson’s release. Of course, she always raised the issue of thousands of others, as the UN did and other international organizations, who are unjustly imprisoned in Peru, but whether US aid should be conditioned on her release.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: In July, the House came close to withholding all but humanitarian funds from Peru unless Lori was released. But that measure did not pass, although we had many votes in support of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there’s a chance this year?

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: We will continue working very hard for Lori.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Congressmember Maloney, thank you very much.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: And I know when she comes home, it will be because you and many others in this country continue to care about her and continue to fight for her release and her freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks for taking the time.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Bye, bye.

AMY GOODMAN: New York Congressmember Carolyn Maloney, speaking to us about the case of Lori Berenson, who today has been in prison for four years. She was sentenced on January 11, 1996. Final words from her parents, Mark Berenson. Mark, there is a lot of grassroots organizing that has started to happen in this country. Can you talk a little about that?

MARK BERENSON: Yes, and certainly in New York, for example, there’s going to be a candlelight vigil this evening at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at 47th Street and First Avenue. I’m grateful, Amy, that you’ll be there to speak, along with Congresswoman Maloney, and I really want to thank her for being on the program. She has really been dedicated to us, and I want everyone out there to know she’s a great congresswoman. She puts her constituents first and foremost, and that’s the kind of — this is a government for the people, and this is what we need in the Congress.

I’d like to say that there — to commemorate this anniversary, there are going to be vigils and rallies in fourteen cities across the country, starting in Fairbanks, Alaska, where the coordinator wrote to me it’s forty degrees below zero this morning — I hope they’re doing this indoors — Tucson, Arizona; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Boulder and Denver, Colorado; Washington, D.C.; Miami, Florida; Boston and Brockton, Massachusetts; Paterson, New Jersey; again, New York City; Memphis and Dallas.

In addition, there will be meditations held in Zen Buddhist centers in San Jose, California; Boca Raton, Florida; St. Louis, Missouri; Blowing Rock, North Carolina; Albuquerque, New Mexico; here in Brooklyn, New York; and in Olympia, Washington. There’s also going to be such services in Ottawa, Canada and in Okayama, Japan.

Our website, www.freelori.org — it’s one word — contains all the up-to-date information on these vigils, and that is — as the congresswoman said, with your help, we will overcome and we will get Lori out. She has written a statement that’s on our website that will be mentioned at each of the vigils today.

I’d like to conclude by saying that she says, "Over these last four years, I have become more convinced than ever that in the presence of social injustice and abuse, silence is almost as harmful as the injustice itself. To be silent is to be an accomplice. We will not be silent. We will not be quiet until there’s changes, until there is justice and respect for human rights in Peru, and we will keep the faith that justice will prevail."

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mark Berenson, I want to thank you for being with us. Mark Berenson, father of Lori Berenson, charged with treason against the fatherland in Peru four years ago and sentenced to life in prison. The Peruvian government said she was part of a group, the MRTA, that was planning to blow up the congress. The evidence was never presented at the trial. The judges were hooded, and she was sentenced in the presence of — with others, with men, with guns at their heads. We will continue to follow the case of Lori Berenson.

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