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Who is Lori Berenson?

Lori Berenson was born and raised in New York City. After attending LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, she enrolled at MIT in the fall of 1987. At MIT, Lori studied anthropology and worked with late professor Martin Diskin on land and wealth distribution in El Salvador. (While in the Boston area, out of compassion for those less fortunate, she also volunteered in soup kitchens and blood banks.) Lori's research led her to visit El Salvador over IAP in 1988, and again as an exchange student the following year. In 1990, she left MIT to return to El Salvador to work with refugees displaced by the recent civil war. In 1994, Lori moved to Peru to study the plight of the poor and the Peruvian government's response to their poverty. In November of 1995, she was arrested and imprisoned by the police and later accused of being both a member and leader of the MRTA (Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement). One month later, she was charged with treason in a military proceeding and sentenced to life in maximum-security prison.

The case against Lori

In the military proceeding, the prosecution claimed that Lori leased (and lived in) a house for MRTA members. A search of her room had allegedly revealed counterfeit press credentials and maps of the Peruvian Congress bearing her handwriting. The police reported also that no work or partly written articles were found to support her claim of being a freelance journalist. In addition, a number of arrested MRTA members claimed that they knew Lori before her arrest and that she was, in fact, a member and leader of the MRTA.

Lori's defense

Lori's defense team was not allowed to question the witnesses against her, nor to examine the evidence; they conducted their defense within the limits imposed by the military proceeding. They showed that Lori had rented a room in a large house that later housed MRTA members. They said Lori did not know that the three people she met there were MRTA members; and observed that she had ceased to live in the house several months before her arrest. They pointed out that, contrary to the prosecution's assertions, Lori's name was not on the lease of the house. The attorneys showed also that Lori had obtained legitimate press credentials from the Peruvian government; and produced confirmation letters from the publishers of both Modern Times and Third World Viewpoint certifying that she was writing articles for them--showing that Lori, in fact, was working as a journalist. As for the MRTA witnesses, some were people Lori claimed never to have met; others she acknowledged having met, but observed that she had never been told their real names or about their involvement with the MRTA. Both her defense team and independent observers questioned the legitimacy of these witnesses, whose testimony was taken without the presence of an attorney and was obtained through inducement, coercion, threat, and torture. On the whole, Lori called the charges against her preposterous and asserted her total innocence. Nevertheless, she received a sentence of life in prison. Her trial was condemned by many observers for the lack of due process.

Five years later, a second hearing

By June of 2001, the government in Peru had changed and human rights conditions improved slightly. After having spent five years in an Andean prison, Lori Berenson was given a second hearing, this time before civilian judges. The charge that she had been a leader of the MRTA was dropped for lack of evidence; this time she was tried for being a member of the group. She was found guilty and given a twenty-year sentence. She is now incarcerated in Chorrillos women's prison. The Peruvian government says it is satisfied that Lori has received a fair trial, but many independent legal specialists and human rights observers do not agree. For example, Professor Anna Marie Gallagher (Georgetown University Law School) attended the trial as an observer and has written a legal analysis.

More information

To find out about recent developments in the Berenson case, or to get in touch with her defense team, please refer to the Committee to Free Lori Berenson.