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Student leads MIT campaign to free imprisoned Berenson

Felix F. AuYeung posts a flyer advertising an upcoming MIT appearance by the parents of imprisoned former MIT student Lori Berenson.
Felix F. AuYeung posts a flyer advertising an upcoming MIT appearance by the parents of imprisoned former MIT student Lori Berenson.
Photo / Donna Coveney

Felix F. AuYeung had no idea who Lori Berenson was when he came to MIT from San Francisco two years ago. Now she dominates his life.

Ms. Berenson, a former MIT student (Class of 1991), has served four years of a life sentence in Peru, convicted of treason by a hooded military tribunal in 1995. Amnesty International has declared that she is a political prisoner and that Peru acted in violation of international treaty obligations by imprisoning her.

"I could be the next Lori Berenson," said Mr. AuYeung, who discovered her plight when he visited the web site at a year ago. He is now a member of the MIT Social Justice Cooperative, which is sponsoring an appearance by Lori's parents, Rhoda and Mark Berenson, on Monday, April 10 at 7pm in Rm 10-250.

"Anybody who visits the wrong foreign country could be the next Lori," said Mr. AuYeung, 24, who came to the US from Hong Kong with his family when he was 9 years old. "If you believe in peace and freedom and you talk up and say people have a right to self-government, you could wind up in jail, or dead."

While adorning bulletin boards with posters advertising the Berensons' appearance, Mr. AuYeung is trying to sensitize his fellow students and the rest of the MIT community to their daughter's plight.

"As a community, we have to stand up for her. The people who graduate from here have to be educated about Lori," he said. "If the entire MIT community writes to their elected Congress representatives or to the President, something will happen. The more people who know about her situation, the better chance she has of getting out and returning to her family."

Mr. AuYeung, who is working toward the SM in mechanical engineering, minored in peace and conflict studies at the University of California at Berkeley as an undergraduate. "If engineers aren't concerned about peace, who will be?" said Mr. AuYeung, who was the only engineering student in the program. "Do we expect to place the fate of civil society solely on decisions by politicians? Everyone has a stake in peace. Everyone wants peace. The world isn't a perfect place and many of us are concerned about making it a better place."

Mr. AuYeung, who was also a member of the Planning Committee for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, describes his parents and three siblings as ethical and compassionate but not politically active. He jokes that he is "the purple sheep" of the family.

After the Berensons' talk, petitions requesting federal officials to intervene will be circulated. This effort will continue the following day at the Stratton Student Center and in Lobby 10.

"Ultimately, it's a matter of transforming concern into action for social change," Mr. AuYeung said. "In this case, it's about speaking up for justice and dignity for an American citizen. It's about bringing Lori Berenson home."

Rhoda and Mark Berenson visited MIT during Commencement in 1998 when President Clinton spoke. A letter from members of the MIT community was presented to Mr. Clinton by President Charles M. Vest's office, appealing to him to intervene on Ms. Berenson's behalf. The letter was signed by Institute Professor Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor Emeritus Philip Morrison and Episcopal Chaplain Jane Gould, among others.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 5, 2000.

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