U.S. EYEWITNESSES IN LIMA, PERU COURTROOM DENOUNCE VERDICT, SENTENCE OF LORI BERENSON
By Don White (Special to IMC)
Los Angeles June 21, 2001 Two distinguished Southland religious leaders who were in the courtroom yesterday in Lima, Peru when American activist Lori Berenson was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment have denounced both the verdict and the sentence and have called for her immediate release.
Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs and Rev. James Lawson, Jr. told a press conference this afternoon that the Peruvians "have convicted an innocent person," and both pledged to continue the campaign to free the 31-year-old New Yorker whom they called "a young woman who represents the best our country has to offer."
Ms. Berenson had served nearly six years of a life sentence, imposed by the military, before her sentence was voided and a new civilian trial was ordered.
The religious leaders, and other activists from the Free Lori Berenson Campaign who appeared at the press conference, stressed that Ms. Berenson went to Peru because of her strong commitment to human and civil rights and to research the role of women in Peruvian society. Ms. Berenson carried press credentials and was writing stories on the struggles in Peru when she was arrested nearly six years ago and charged with collaborating with a revolutionary group. She was convicted five and a half years ago by a military court, with hooded judges, and sentenced to life in prison under laws imposed by the former Peruvian dictator Fujimori, now living in exile in Japan. Her trial and sentence was condemned by the international community for violating virtually every standard for fair and impartial trials.
Both Rev. Lawson and Rabbi Jacobs, who met with Lori Berenson in prison during their visit to Lima, stressed several aspects of the case:
--Unreliable, tainted, "heresay" evidence was allowed into the record.
--Lori was traveling because of her interest in human rights and civil rights and was carrying press credentials.
--As a journalist the young activists was "talking to everyone," possibly including some who were on the government's "list."
--The evidence did not support a guilty conviction and the outcome was apparently pre-determined.
Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) who visited Lori earlier this year during the trial commented, "There is no question in my mind that Lori is being condemned because of her commitment to social justice." She told reporters that the verdict appears to have been determined even before the trial began because the evidence simply did not support a guilty verdict.
In addition to Rabbi Jacobs, Rev. Lawson, and Ms. Sanbrano, speakers included Blase and Theresa Bonpane of the Office of the Americas (OOA), Rev. Fernando Santillana of the United Methodist Church and Patricia Todd of the FREE LORI BERENSON Campaign.
In a 45 minute statement at the end of her trial, Ms. Berenson told the court and the world, "I am innocent of all charges against me. Neither of my trials, in the civilian or military court, has proven me guilty of any crime." She went on to describe how she went to Peru because of "my love for Latin America and the Peruvian people."
Several speakers at the press conference were highly critical of the U.S. State Department for not launching a more rigorous defense of the American woman and called on all appropriate federal agencies to quickly pressure the Peruvian government for the release of Ms. Berenson.
The religious leaders described Lori Berenson as strong, committed to her ideals and holding up well during the ordeal. "She has grown in strength and commitment during this trying time," Rev. Lawson commented.
Rev. Santillana reminded the press that thousands of innocent Peruvians are languishing in prison in the country and that "Lori Berenson is being treated like so many others who have expressed themselves on the issues of human rights, poverty and injustice."
Of the participants in the press conference Blase Bonpane, Patricia Todd, Angela Sanbrano, Rev. lawson and Rabbi Jacobs have all visited Ms. Berenson during the trial.
The two religious leaders had virtually stepped off a flight from Lina when they met with reporters to "tell the story of a young American woman who is being victimized because of her strong commitment to the people of Latin America."