Monday, December 19, 2011

Lori Berenson Prevented from Traveling to US, After Serving 15 Years Prison in Peru



In the latest reverse in her long case, Lori Berenson, a US citizen who has served 15 years in prison in Peru for allegedly aiding terrorists, was prevented at the last minute from boarding a plane to the US for her first visit home since leaving prison.


Berenson was convicted in 1996, at the age of 25, of collaborating with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a Marxist rebel group which carried out bombings and kidnappings. She formed connections with members of the group when she traveled to Peru after dropping out of MIT, and allegedly used her journalism credentials to gain access to the Congress building in preparation for an attack by the organization. She was reviled within the country for declaring that the MRTA was not a terrorist organization but a revolutionary movement.


Her case has been through many twists and turns; after being sentenced to life without parole she was given a retrial and a reduced sentence of 20 years, then was released on parole in May 2010. In August a judge announced that the ruling had been overturned and she was ordered back to serve the rest of her sentence. She was then released again in November of that year, but the terms mean that she must remain in Peru until 2015.


On Friday it was reported that Berenson had been granted permission to travel to the US for Christmas with her young son, her first time out of Peru since her arrest in 1995. She arrived at the airport on Friday evening, but was unable to board the plane.Some reports in the Peruvian press initially suggested that she had simply arrived late for the flight. She told press that she had been turned away by agents who claimed she needed a document for immigration, though she said she had all the necessary papers.


Various Peruvian authorities have claimed the affair was not their fault, as the NYT reports:
Peru’s antiterrorism prosecutor, Julio Galindo, had filed a complaint late Friday to the court that had granted Ms. Berenson permission to travel, arguing that it violated the law. … A spokesman for the Judiciary Department, however, said the prosecutor’s complaint should not have prevented her from leaving the country.


Ms. Berenson’s lawyer, Aníbal Apari Sánchez, told The Associated Press that the government had made a political decision to halt her departure, which he called “an abuse of authority.”
Berenson’s treatment has been much criticized, from the circumstances of her 1996 trial to the several years she was held in remote, maximum security prisons, much of the time confined to her cell for 23 hours a day and sometimes in solitary confinement. The inconsistencies and quick about-turns that have followed her first release demonstrate the shortcomings of the Peruvian judicial system, which appears to be playing politics with her case.


There have been suggestions that President Ollanta Humala might pardon Berenson, but this latest developments seem to indicate otherwise, with Berenson’s lawyer (and estranged husband) saying the Interior Department had stepped in to stop her leaving the country.


Central American Politics argues that the president should take action to stop further legal wrangling:
Perhaps now is a good time for President Humala to step in and say that we are done, that he doesn't want her treatment to become an embarrassment for the people of Peru.


News Briefs


  • Humala is also facing pressure to deal out legal mercy in another quarter, with the publication of polls suggesting that 66 percent of Peruvians who would back a pardon for ex-President Alberto Fujimori. The former leader (whose special military tribunals were behind the life sentencing of Berenson) is currently serving 25 years in prison for human rights abuses committed while in power. His family claim that he is suffering from cancer and depression, and could “die at any moment,” while Fujimori himself has argued that no one deserves to die in prison. One congressman told press that the new prime minister, Oscar Valdes, was in talks with Fujimori’s camp, and that the ex-president could be free by Christmas.
  • Meanwhile Humala has seen his approval ratings fall, as El Comercio reports, from 56 down to 47 percent in the last 30 days, amid fierce conflict that sets local communities against projects to exploit the country’s natural resources. He has seen the biggest drop, of 20 percent, in the east of the country, where many of the protests are based, and where many expected that the left-leaning candidate would take the side of those opposed to the schemes, or at least a more measured approach. However, Humala has seen his popularity rise at least with Mary Anastasia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal, who praises his efforts to resist “risks to development coming from a hard left operating under the guise of ‘environmentalism.’” She claims that one of the leaders of the protests is a former member of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, using this to suggest that the environmental concerns of the protesters are somehow “suspect.”
  • An article by Dorothy Kronick published on Al Jazeera looks at the wave of violence in Venezuela, noting that most of the thousands of killings that take place in Caracas each year are due to petty crime rather than being part of a larger conflict:
    “unlike Mexico, where the military is battling well-armed and well-organised drug trafficking organisations (which also fight amongst themselves), Venezuela is not in the midst of a drug war. Nor is Venezuela contesting an insurgency or fighting a foreign power or otherwise engaged in combat. Rather, the killing in Caracas is decentralised and diffuse. Thousands die in small-scale gang disputes. Petty theft often ends in murder.”
    Caracas Chronicles blog welcomes the tone of the article, but suggests that politics had a lot to do with the recent conflict at the Central University of Venezuela, which Kronick uses as an example of the senselessness of the violence.
  • The Guardian has a piece on Brazil’s “narco-tourists” which it says are a “new generation of drug mules” -- middle class, educated Brazilians who travel to Europe and bring back synthetic drugs like ecstasy and LSD, using a foreign holiday as a cover story.
    “Brazil's narco-turistas bear little resemblance to South America's traditional drug mules – desperate, cash-strapped locals, Africans or Europeans, who smuggle stomachs or suitcases of cocaine from airport to airport for a fraction of their cargo's worth.”
  • The LA Times reports on new schemes used by drug traffickers to bring their profits home from the US, by laundering them through legitimate businesses; according to the report, “teams of money launderers working for cartels use dollars to purchase a commodity, and then export the commodity to Mexico or Colombia.” This dodges suspicions raised by paying for goods like a house or car in cash, and instead hides the money within relatively small transactions.
  • A retired Colombian Army general has been acquitted of the forced disappearance of a rebel fighter following the 1985 siege of the Palace of Justice, seat of the Supreme Court in Bogota, reports the AP. Families of other people who were disappeared that day, most of them civilians, condemned the verdict and said the general had been the mastermind behind the murder of their relatives, reports Colombia Reports.
  • The Global Post has an article on another disturbing phenomenon currently taking place in Colombia, where there is a gathering backlash from powerful groups against the government’s moves to compensate victims of violence and displacement, as noted on previous posts. The report looks at the issue of supposed “false victims,” who the authorities say falsely claimed to have lost relatives in an infamous massacre carried out by paramilitaries, with the collusion of state forces, in 1997. The Global Post notes, “Some human-rights groups say the government is suffering from massacre denial,” and that the questioning of the massacre -- which undoubtedly took place, as did many others whose survivors were never compensated -- could have a negative effect on efforts to seek justice for conflict-era killings in countries like Guatemala and Chile.
  • The Miami Herald has an op-ed arguing that the Mexican cartels do not constitute a “terrorist insurgency,” and that Republican efforts to label them as such are crazy and dangerous. The author’s point would be supported by the Zetas themselves, who declared in a publicly hung banner last week that they were neither guerrillas nor terrorists -- see analysis from InSight Crime.
  • The LA Times reports on efforts to exhume poet Pablo Neruda, to determine if there is truth to claims that he was poisoned by the forces who overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973.
  • In more news on exhumation, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is demonstrating his respect for his spiritual mentor Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century independence hero, by again disturbing his mortal remains, this time to rehouse them in a fancier coffin decorated with gold, diamonds, and pearls, as the AP reports.