Today we conclude our exclusive interview with jailed American activist Lori Berenson. For the past two days, Democracy Now! has broken the sound barrier, bringing you the voice of Lori for the first time since she was sentenced to twenty years by a Peruvian court. We had sent Lori Berenson a series of questions and broadcast her answers from the Chorrillos prison in Lima, Peru. [includes rush transcript]
Lori Berenson has been in prison in Peru for more than five years. She was first sentenced to life in prison by a hooded military court in Peru on charges that she was a leader of the MRTA, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, a group classified as terrorist by the Peruvian government.
Berenson was transferred to Lima after the Peruvian military voided her life sentence and ordered her retried in a civilian court on reduced charges of collaborating with the MRTA. Last month, she was convicted and re-sentenced to twenty years in prison.
In the segments of the interview we previously broadcast, Lori insists that she is innocent of the charges against her, says that if she had condemned the MRTA, she would probably be free by now, and says she feels her trial was used as a “smokescreen” by former President Alberto Fujimori and jailed intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos.
We continue now with the interview we began broadcasting on Monday. The sound isn’t optimal, but these are the conditions under which she was able to do the interview.
In the final segment of this exclusive interview, Lori discusses the impact her imprisonment has had on her family and repeats excerpts from her final statement to the court from her recent trial.
- Lori Berenson
AMY GOODMAN: Today we conclude our exclusive interview with jailed US activist Lori Berenson. For the past two days, Democracy Now! has broken the sound barrier, bringing you the voice of Lori Berenson for the first time since she was sentenced to twenty years by a Peruvian court. We had sent Lori Berenson a series of questions and broadcast her answers from the Torrillos prison in Lima, Peru. Berenson has been sentenced in Peru for more than — has been in prison for more than five years. She was first sentenced to life in prison by a hooded military court in Peru on charges that she was a leader of the MRTA, the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, a group classified as terrorist by the Peruvian government. She was transferred to Lima after the Peruvian military voided her life sentence and ordered her retried in a civilian court on reduced charges of collaborating with the MRTA. Last month, she was convicted and re-sentenced to twenty years in prison.
In the interview that we have played so far, Lori Berenson insists she is innocent of the charges against her, says that if she had condemned the MRTA, she would probably be free by now, and says she feels her trial was used as a smokescreen by former President Alberto Fujimori and jailed intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos.
We continue now with the interview we began broadcasting on Monday. The sound isn’t optimal, but these are the conditions under which she was able to do the interview. In this final segment of the interview, Lori discusses the impact her imprisonment has had on her family and repeats excerpts of her final statement to the court from her recent trial. She reads the questions that we sent to her, and she answers them. This is Lori Berenson.
LORI BERENSON: The next question is that my parents have also been through an incredible ordeal, and yet they seem more determined than ever to win my release. What has that been like for me as a family? And looking around me in this prison, how do other families deal with having their loved ones imprisoned?
I believe, and I will certainly say I’m tremendously grateful for everything my parents have done. I think they’ve done it out of their moral convictions, their love for me. And I think they’ve done it not only for me, because they think I — they realize that my problem isn’t an isolated problem, it’s actually part of a much larger problem. And I really admire them for all they’ve done. As a family, I would say it’s been a factor that’s been very difficult for me to go through, I think. It’s very painful for me to see how my parents have dedicated so much time to this. I perhaps not only didn’t expect that, but I would — it makes me feel somewhat, on one hand, very honored, and on the other hand, I feel badly for the amount of efforts they’ve gone through, especially since the response to all of their efforts has always been such a difficult one for them to accept. I know they’re more determined than ever, as I am, I think.
Though it may take its time, I believe there will be a day in which the period of — the context in which my case has been dealt with starts being looked at in another manner. It is my hope, at any rate. And not only my hope, I believe there’s concrete evidence that when the whole policy of disinformation gets discovered — and I think it will get discovered — I think many situations like mine will have to be looked at in another light. And I think — I know my parents’ effort will always have had a very important contribution, not only in my case, but in the general situation of justice. Justice, I’m not talking about judicially; justice in a general sense of what the real meaning of justice: for all.
How do other families deal with their loved ones imprisoned?
I would say here, well, one of the differences, perhaps, is that families of political prisoners probably see their family members as people who are, in one way or another, defending the rights of them, defending the rights of the most poor in their country, defending the rights of — to a history, to life, really. And I think, perhaps, the bigger difference between other family members and mine is the economic situation, that most families are — must go through, especially the families of political prisoners. Most of them are from much poorer families, and not only that, defending a family member, defending — it has its costs, in a sense. I mean, people have been imprisoned for that. Not only that, it’s the — or the fact that in this society still, just because your last name is the same one as a rebel leader, it still means that you’ll get a harder time getting a job. It’s an issue in which there has been such disinformation and such manipulation on a psychological level. The fear already still exists in that sense. So I think it’s — the family members here have such an uphill battle. Even in spite of that, they do work, work for not only the release or defending the rights of their family members who are in jail, also, in a certain sense, explaining who are their family members, saying — I’ve heard, for example, when family member — you know, my brother or my mother, my sister, my aunt, my — they’re what the — social side or a social — someone who is seeking social justice [no audio] is what those who are members of organizations that have taken up arms basically base their decision upon. It was a decision to take up arms against social injustice, and that is the way they see themselves. I suppose there are some families of prisoners who don’t understand it that way, but there are many who do, and that they see the decision of their loved ones who are in a jail as part of a social process.
As I said in a sentence a little bit earlier, I think the economic situation of most relatives is far worse than anything — far worse — certainly far worse than the situation of my parents coming from the United States. But in addition to that, I think, under the — with the new — with the economic policies of the last ten years, I would say that most people work in the informal sector, you know, and it’s certainly difficult to help your relatives in jail when you’re trying to survive. So that’s — I think there are limitations both because of fear and also because of how hard life is, because of the huge degree of social injustice that exists. Well, that what I would say what I see here in prison about the relations between families and their loved ones in prison.
Basically I could give a general idea of what I said in the courtroom. I’m innocent of the charges against me. Neither of my trials in the civilian or military court have proven me guilty of any crime. The charges against me are based on the hearsay of a federal detainee who was trying to free himself at my expense. Since the very day of my arrest, I have been called a terrorist, which is a term that has been used and abused of in Peruvian society for far too many years, mostly because of the psychological impact of a concept that brings to mind indiscriminate violence designed to terrorize, irrational destructive violence, deadly senseless terror. I am not a terrorist, and I even condemn terrorism. I always have. It is very important that these years of political violence and the causes of political violence be understood, taking into account the great amount of disinformation that exists when there is a dictatorship or a government that uses authoritarian means to maintain itself. I think that if there have been acts that could be considered as terrorist acts, or had they been committed by the state or state agents, or had they been committed by any one of the subversive groups, I think it’d be important that these acts be seen in their true magnitude, and the true authors. I think one of the things that disinformation has done in these years is just bunch, group together a series of acts and call it terrorism and just use it with the whole psychological impact. And I think it’s very important that when you want to construct a future, when you want to build a future, that you build it on the basis of the truth — the truth, the whole truth, and not a truth that, in this case, the state, has been trying to put out and make people believe. I think it’s very important that the truth of the facts and everything that has happened and why it has happened, why there was — or why there are organizations that decided to take up arms, I think it’s very important that all of that be known.
I feel very sad for all direct and indirect victims of violence. The damage to a society goes well beyond the physical and psychological impact of the violence on its victims and their families. It leaves deep wounds, very painful wounds, and it is sad to watch a people endure it. Political violence harms a society because it is interconnected with the institutionalized violence criticized by important church authorities in the second half of the twentieth century. El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero gave his life in 1980 because of his criticism of what he called institutionalized violence, as did Bishop Juan Gerardi, martyred in Guatemala in more recent years for defending the poor and defending the truth. Hundreds and probably thousands of clergy lay workers have been assassinated for defending the poor and speaking out against social injustice and the institutionalized violence of hunger and poverty that is the horrendous daily peril of millions. When, on March 20th, I said my case has been used as a smokescreen, that my trial was political, it was because of the particular elements regarding my case and, as well, in general, the cases of all of those detained and tried in the context of political violence. There’s a very simple reason: the existence of insurgents or rebel movements in Latin America and many other places in the world has a lot to do with social and economic conditions. The government responds through state policy, albeit solely military policy or with other components, and that is a political decision. Thus, my trial is political. These cases are political.
AMY GOODMAN: Lori Berenson, repeating what she said at the time of her trial. She was sentenced to twenty years by a Peruvian court on June 20th. We are going to go back to her statement in just a minute here on Democracy Now!
AMY GOODMAN: We continue with the exclusive interview with jailed US activist Lori Berenson in Peru. We sent her questions, which she reads and then gives her answers. She’s now in the midst of sharing what she said in the courtroom in the time of her trial this past June. Lori Berenson.
LORI BERENSON: Thousands of Peruvians have suffered persecution, detention, torture and death as part of a state policy violating human and fundamental rights of its population. After ex-President Fujimori’s self-coup in 1992, constitutional law was violated by executive decrees made during a state of emergency. The Congress and university were closed. All forms of social organization and opposition was prohibited. The unconstitutional legislation included the antiterrorist laws that destroyed due process in civilian and military courts. But today in Peru and throughout the world, it is common knowledge that the Peruvian state did more than violate human rights by closing democratic institutions and stomping on labor and social rights, leaving its people hungry. It is now common knowledge that behind the unconstitutional legislation and the manipulation of public opinion around certain issues like political violence, behind all that was an extremely corrupt government that profited from the blood and sweat of its citizens, condemning them to live in hunger and misery.
The dictatorship manipulated the judiciary to ensure the cover-up of human rights violations and corruption. It wasn’t an issue of particular judicial authorities, but the system itself and the legislation. In the cases of those tried for terrorism or treason, they were often condemned on the basis of hearsay and fabricated evidence. People were sentenced for refusing to admit guilt, regardless of whether or not they were guilty. They were condemned for not fingering others and for rejecting the psychological and social stigma of being called a terrorist. Hearsay, supposed intentions, finger pointing, or lack thereof, personal and political opiniona, none of those constitute proof of any crime.
I am aware that much of the Peruvian public has a very negative image of me, which in part is because of the anger I expressed and how aggressive I came across when I was illegally presented to the press in January 1996. And I am aware of how that image and those statements were manipulated to create a monster larger than life, so that I later personified twenty years of insurgent and state violence. This was part of the propaganda designed to make people forget how government policy and corruption impoverished the Peruvian people. As I have stated in this trial, I regret having come across as such an angry, aggressive person, especially if it confused or offended the Peruvian people, whom I really respect and love. The anger I showed was the result of my indignation upon seeing not only the violation of human rights and fundamental rights of the Peruvian people, but also the suffering I witnessed in DINCOTE and the farce of a trial I was undergoing. The mistreatment and outright torture of my fellow detainees form only a short chapter of the history of torture in DINCOTE or army bases. That was a state policy. Even so, I think it was wrong of me to have expressed myself in that way, so angry. I should have said the same or similar things, but in a calmer way. However, I believe I was punished more for what I said. Not only was I given a life sentence, but also for over five years my name and image were used as a symbol of so-called terrorism. The punishment was not for cowering — the punishment was for not cowering to the system of injustice and for expressing my beliefs.
I explained why I was innocent of each of the charges against me, what — saying how I knew people on a social basis, what I had actually done, actually [inaudible] or not. What I did explain is that I had not — did not come to Peru to cause any harm. I was and I am interested in Peru’s history and Peru’s future. The reason I wanted to write articles about Peru was precisely because I thought it was very important that people in the United States and elsewhere know more about Peru. Peru’s cultural richness should be more greatly appreciated by all. I believe that cultural history should be considered useful in the present and looking towards the future. I was seriously writing those articles. The editors of the magazines have confirmed it. My notes, my interviews with various people prove it. I knew nothing about any supposed plan that the MRTA might have had to seize the Congress. To this day, I know nothing about such a plan, or even if it existed. And if it existed, I certainly had nothing to do with it.
I explained some of the contradictions of one of my co-accused, who definitely told lies to save his own skin, and how some of the declarations in court have shed light upon who this person is and what he might have known. I reiterated my innocence of the prosecutor’s charges of being a member and collaborator of the MRTA. In fact, by definition, one cannot be both a member and a collaborator. I am neither, and there is no evidence to the contrary.
I did not come to Peru to cause damage or harm to anyone or anything. I’ve always been deeply concerned with issues of poverty and social justice. If I was interested in Peru’s history and its people, it was with my best intentions. When I spoke about poverty five years ago during my press presentation, it was because the human suffering caused by social injustice is unfair, inhumane and downright immoral. Poverty in Peru has gotten worse since my detention. Now people talk about more sectors of poor and higher percentages of extreme poverty, and no one can deny this. Not only that, politicians, the Church, everyone speaks of it. I have been very open and honest about this, because it has been part of my way of life for many years. I believe that when things are wrong, one should say they are wrong. One should speak out and promote those social and moral values for all people.
I am grateful the help of my family and friends. And even their presence in this trial has a lot to do with those moral values that I believe in and that they believe in. I have not hidden my opinions or my beliefs. I have been honest and transparent when expressing who I am and what I think. It has been a tremendous honor for me to have been involved in social issues for many years. It has also been a great honor for me to have worked in a country like El Salvador, working with the refugees, with the students, and working on the peace process with the FMLN. It’s been certainly an honor for me to be part of that, and I think I have no reason to be ashamed of that. When I describe my work in El Salvador, or when I say that I like the music of Victor Jara, a Chilean author and singer who was cruelly assassinated by a dictatorship because of his beliefs and because of his work toward social justice, none of that makes me guilty of a crime. On the contrary, I think it makes it clear who I am and what I believe. I have nothing but love for Latin America people and the Peruvian people. I have been in jail for many years now, but I still have a great hope, and I’m still convinced that there will be a future of justice for the people of Peru and all humanity.
That is almost the entire text of what I had said. If there’s anything else I’d like to add, I would say that these years that I’ve spent in jail have been a great learning experience, in the sense of learning more about human nature, learning more about — I wouldn’t say who I am; I would say learning more about what it means to defend what one believes in and defending what is correct. I think, in terms of learning about human — I would say, the greatness of — in terms of possibilities of human beings, I would say I have witnessed and seen so many things and lived so many things, that it certainly makes me appreciate the concepts of solidarity and brotherly love and human rights, in general. That would be all. Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Lori Berenson, speaking from her prison in Lima, Peru, where she has been sentenced to twenty years. She’s served five of those years. She is expected to be released November 29th, 2015, unless she is pardoned or released in some other way. Lori Berenson can — more information can be gotten on her case by going to the website that her family has set up at www.freelori.org. That’s www.freelori.org. And if you’ve missed any part of the last three days of the tape that we have played of our interview with her, the first time she’s responding to journalists’ questions on tape to be broadcast since she was sentenced, you can go to webactive.com and hear Monday, Tuesday and today, Wednesday’s conversation. That’s webactive.com.