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News conference protests ex-student's plight

Former MIT student Lori Berenson is innocent of treason charges and was convicted at a "secret sham" military trial, her father Mark Berenson said at an April 24 news conference in the Stratton Student Center.

The event was one of several held in the area over two days last week to draw attention to the plight of Ms. Berenson, 26, who was arrested in November 1995 and convicted in January by a Peruvian military tribunal for allegedly plotting terrorist activities. She has been sentenced to life in Yanamayo Prison in the Andes. She was an MIT undergraduate studying anthropology and archeology but left the Institute as a sophomore in 1988, initially doing research in El Salvador and later working with the American Committees in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).

Ms. Berenson moved to Peru in the early 1990s and was charged last year with planning kidnappings with leftist guerrillas of the pro-Cuban Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. Appeals of her conviction have been denied.

At the press conference, her supporters decried the legal proceedings, noting that the trial was held in secret and that she was not allowed to introduce evidence in her own defense or cross-examine witnesses. It is now "common knowledge" that the Peruvian judicial system is unfair and is "frankly, an embarrassment," said Thomas Nooter, one of Ms. Berenson's attorneys. "I think the Peruvian government got the idea that this would go unnoticed in the international community."

"We as her parents want Lori to get a fair trial. That's all Lori wants for herself and other people," said Dr. Berenson, a professor of statistics at Bernard Baruch College in New York. "My daughter is innocent of the charges of treason and terrorism."

Ms. Berenson is a pacifist and would not participate in terrorism and violence, her supporters say. "Knowing her personally, these are the most improbable charges I can imagine," said Professor Martin Diskin of anthropology, with whom she studied. "She has to be considered a victim of the political system."

US Rep. Joseph Kennedy has tried to intercede with Peruvian officials on behalf of Ms. Berenson. "It's important to distinguish between someone's sympathy for the goals of social justice and violent tactics embraced by revolutionary movements," he said in a prepared statement. An open trial conducted by civilians is the best way "for deciding whether someone's political sympathies have crossed the line into illegal behavior."

President Charles M. Vest has written letters on Ms. Berenson's behalf to Rep. Kennedy and other government officials.

Yanamayo Prison, which is 12,000 feet above sea level, is noted for its "miserable conditions," Dr. Berenson said. Prisoners are confined for all but a half-hour per day to a small unheated cell with a concrete bunk, uncovered window openings and ice-cold running water, according to a January 12 Associated Press article. She is allowed only one visit a month from a US embassy representative, her father said.

"It's hard to walk these streets and go into this building knowing that Lori was here," Dr. Berenson said. "This is one father who's not going to allow the Peruvian government to throw away the key-not while I have an ounce of breath in my body."

An April 24 forum held at MIT was sponsored by the MIT Committee to Host the Family of Lori Berenson, the MIT Hunger Action group, WMBR and Boston CISPES. Speakers included Professor Diskin and Susana Cardenas of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, an expert on human rights in Latin America, as well as Ms. Berenson's parents. Other events were held April 25 at Harvard, Northeastern and in Cambridge City Hall.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 1, 1996.

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