Justice in Peru? American defendant: Killing Peruvians is wrong, no matter who helps to do it.

January 18, 1996

LORI BERENSON is a throwback to the 1960s, a self-righteous young American who fights for the underclass in countries not her own. She has just been sentenced by a secret military tribunal in Peru to life in a wind-swept Andean prison for "treason."

President Alberto Fujimori has done wonders for Peru since election in 1990, suspending congress for eight months, destroying the leadership of the Shining Path terrorists, jump-starting the economy, restoring civil society and winning triumphant re-election last year. He has moved against drug exports and to resolve the territorial dispute with Ecuador.

The State Department tut-tutted the prosecution of Ms. Berenson, urging an open trial. But it had cheered the anti-terrorism campaign. Peru sentenced 73 terrorists from the Shining Path (home-grown Maoists) and the smaller Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) to life for treason in 1995. Now it has sentenced 24 MRTA members rounded up last November, Ms. Berenson and three others to life. The prosecution called her a leader of MRTA; her lawyer calls her a collaborator; she calls herself a member.

The prosecution claimed to have thwarted a MRTA raid on the congress. It claimed to have evidence that Ms. Berenson had helped plan it and acquire the weapons. Part of Mr. Fujimori's success against terrorism has come from such military tribunals. Countries combating terrorism often alter process to neutralize assassination and intimidation. None would pass the highest American standard.

Americans have no way of knowing whether the case against Ms. Berenson was proven. They do know that no one has a right to kill Peruvians (which MRTA does) or to help those who do, without the risk of being dealt with under Peruvian (not ideal) law.

Under treaty, any American convicted in Peru has the right to be transferred to a U.S. prison. Ms. Berenson rejects such transfer.

As Mr. Fujimori extends civil society and economic participation, Peru will be held to a rising standard of due process. It will become in Peru's interest to return Ms. Berenson to the U.S. in good health long before 30 years are up. Meanwhile, most Peruvians would consider her guilty of arrogant imperialism. Who is she to decide they need a revolution?

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