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Lori Berenson: America's unsung activist

Lori Berenson: America
Highlights

At a time when women were confined inside the four walls of their houses across the globe and regarded as inferior to their male counterparts, great persons like Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, famous Soong Sisters of China, Clara Barton, Helen Keller, Lorraine Rothman made their mark in their own way.

At a time when women were confined inside the four walls of their houses across the globe and regarded as inferior to their male counterparts, great persons like Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, famous Soong Sisters of China, Clara Barton, Helen Keller, Lorraine Rothman made their mark in their own way.

Though these great leaders have got their due significance in the pages of history, there are many more women world over, less known and familiar, though fought for basic human rights of oppressed and suppressed and in the process faced imprisonment and did not get their due recognition.

Lori Berenson, a former university student from New York, born on 13th November 1969, is one among such many. Writing in "The New York Times" on March 2, 2011, journalist Jennifer Egan narrated her story marvellously. The Western South American country Peru is a representative democratic republic.

Power and authority there changed hands from President Fernando Belaunde to General Juan Velasco Alvarado and from him to General Francisco Morales Bermudez in rebellions after rebellions.

Later under the presidency of Alberto Fujimori during 1990–2000, there were accusations of authoritarianism, corruption, and human rights violations. Alejandro Toledo was the President of Peru from 2001 to 2006.

Toledo came to international prominence after leading the Opposition against President Alberto Fujimori. Since 2006, Alan Garcia, who lost election to Toledo in 2001, was the president of Peru. The Peruvian government is directly elected, and voting is compulsory for all citizens aged 18 to 70.

Against this background, Lori Berenson, was convicted in 1996 on the allegation of collaborating with a Peruvian Marxist rebel group and was sentenced by a military tribunal to life.

Four-and-a half years later, due to international pressures, her sentence was vacated and was reduced to 20 years. In May 2010, she was granted conditional parole that she must remain in Peru while on parole. Her parole was later revoked and reinstated.

Behind prison walls, in 2003, she married Anibal Apari, a militant whom she met while both were imprisoned. She gave birth in 2009 to their son, Salvador, a citizen of Peru and the United States who has spent most of his life in prison with his mother.

Two American presidents, Bill Clinton and George W Bush pressed Berenson's case without securing an early release. The decision to grant parole came as a surprise. Her sentence in the natural course was to end only in 2015.

Lori Berenson is a social activist. She was born in New York but spent her adult life in Central and South America. Lori Berenson believes in a world in which everyone's fundamental human rights are respected.

She has participated in research and investigation work as well as having done secretarial, translating, writing, and editorial work. Upon detention she was writing articles for two progressive US magazines.

Berenson was first detained on November 30, 1995, when she was 26. Berenson had journalist's credentials and assignments from two American publications.

Berenson claimed she was innocent and had no active links with "Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement" (MRTA). Berenson was arrested at a time when the Peruvian government, under President Alberto Fujimori achieved a state of hyper efficiency at shutting terrorism down.

Berenson was convicted of treason against the Peruvian State for being an MRTA leader and financier. She was sentenced, along with 22 others. Her parents were not allowed to be present.

A few days later, she was transferred with a group of about 40 prisoners to the prison in Puno at an altitude of 12,000 feet. They were flown in a cargo plane with their heads covered, guarded by armed soldiers, and then moved onto a bus.

In 1980, when Lori was just 11, three American nuns who were helping poor people were murdered in El Salvador. That made her to decide to be a nun.

While in Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she worked with a professor who was doing research on the policies of granting political asylum to refugees from Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

She worked briefly for the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, in New York and Washington.

In 1989, Berenson took the job of working for "Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front" (FMLN), which was an aggregate of five Marxist guerrilla groups locked in a long civil war with the oligarchy of El Salvador.

When a cease-fire was declared and peace accords signed in 1992, Berenson moved to San Salvador and became the secretary of one of its commanding generals, who later became the Vice-President of El Salvador.

Berenson left El Salvador in October 1994, travelled in South America and arrived in Peru in November with plans to stay.

Berenson's life sentence was nullified in 2000 by the Fujimori government, which stated that new evidence had come to light that she was not an MRTA leader.

She was granted a new civilian trial in 2001, although much of the evidence against her was the same. Throughout that three-month trial, Berenson asserted her innocence.

While this time she was absolved of being a member of the MRTA she was still convicted of collaboration, renting the house for the group and entering the Congress in the guise of a journalist, with the intention of assisting in a takeover. She received a new sentence of 20 years, including time served.

Berenson was granted parole a second time and released from jail on November 5, 2010, two-and-a-half months after her re-imprisonment. She and her son Salvador made a quiet return to her apartment.

She was still awaiting a date for her next parole hearing. Her parents had gone back to their jobs in New York, and she was grappling with the problem of trying, without childcare, to create some kind of routine.

On January 24, 2011, after another hearing before three judges, Berenson's parole was sustained. By law, she must remain in Lima until 2015, at which point she must leave the country forever. The decision was final.

In April 2002, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared that Lori Berenson was tried twice under illegal anti-terrorism laws that failed to comply with international standards and violated her rights to due process.

The Commission further declared that Peru failed to demonstrate proof in its conviction of Lori Berenson and ruled that her rights be fully restored and that Peru must completely amend its illegal anti-terrorism laws.

The basic conclusions of the Commission were that in neither the military trial nor the civil trial was Lori given due process.

Lori Berenson continued to express her concerns for social justice and for human rights from her prison cell. She repeatedly pointed out that trials denying due process and wrongful convictions under the illegal anti-terrorism laws were far from unusual in Peru and thousands of people have been affected. In that manner, her case is far from exceptional.

In Lori Berenson's case, there were numerous due process and human rights abuses and irregularities noted during her detention, two trials and imprisonment.

Lori Berenson was subjected to abusive treatment, termed "cruel, inhumane, and degrading" by several human rights organisations, but the physical and psychological abuses suffered by many others have been much worse.

Finally, Lori, who is 50 years now and who spent 15 years in a Peruvian jail after being found guilty of helping left-wing rebels left Lima on a flight and headed home to New York on December 3, 2015, nearly two decades after she was charged with treason.

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