Franklin Roosevelt's remark that Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo "may be an SOB, but he's our SOB" is a reminder that defending universal human rights may be a good American party line, but it is somewhat tainted by the support given to loathsome regimes in Chile, Guatemala and South Africa. It's Lori Berenson's singular achievement that she has unwittingly injected Peru's Alberto Fujimori into that mix.Fujimori had crushed the Shining Path terrorists (not to be confused with Tupac Amaru) and destroyed the Peruvian drug trade. Yet his government has been sharply criticized by human rights organizations as well as by the State Department.
Baruch Ivcher Bronstein, for example, is an Israeli who arrived in Peru in 1970 and started a TV channel that critically covered corruption and human rights violations. Ivcher, reported J.J. Goldberg in a comprehensive article in the Jerusalem Post, was assailed by Fujimori and his military brass as "the Jew Ivcher" and charged with being an Israeli spy. He had his citizenship rescinded and his TV station taken away.
"If I'd waited another day, they would have tried me for treason and put me before a firing squad," he said after fleeing to Miami.
Peru's wealthy and self-absorbed organized Jewish community never protested except for a respectful letter asking that his citizenship be restored. They've been silent about Berenson, the former MIT student who was arrested in Peru in 1995 and charged with being a leader of the left-wing Tupac Amaru rebels, helping them plan an attack on the Peruvian Congress - allegations she has always denied. In 1996 she was convicted by judges wearing ski masks in a military court and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
An unusual collection of defenders from all points on the political spectrum have lined up on her side, concentrating on her grotesque trial and cruel sentence and asking that she be allowed to return home.Orthodox Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald, who operates privately in diplomatic back channels and who played a major role in rescuing Natan Sharansky from his Soviet jailers, has taken up her cause. Greenwald has visited the now 30-year-old Berenson four times and expects to return soon to Peru. He believes she will be let go eventually, perhaps for time served.
Dr. Todd Meister, an anesthesiologist studying to become a rabbi at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, recently organized a week of Torah study dedicated to securing her freedom. In nearby Rockville, Md., Conservative Rabbi Howard Gorin drafted a resolution on her behalf that was passed by the Rabbinical Assembly. This was echoed by the Reform movement's Religious Action Center. Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein of B'nai Jeshurun in Manhattan and his brother, Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein of Lima, together with Rabbi Josh Salzman of American Jewish World Services, recently visited her. Salzman described her as "extraordinary" and as someone who "seems to be rediscovering her Judaism in jail."This is not to say that her imprisonment and the severe conditions under which she has lived for most of the time (solitary confinement) comprise "a Jewish issue per se," said her mother, Rhoda, who, with husband Mark, has mounted a relentless campaign.
"Lori was not arrested because she was Jewish," she says, "but Jewish ideals are what brought Lori to Central America and Peru," places where destitution, distress, joblessness and exploitation of the poor are facts of life.
Nor is it a Jewish issue to 221 Republican and Democratic representatives and 43 senators who in July wrote President Clinton asking him to push for her freedom.
Berenson was transferred recently to a maximum security women's prison closer to Lima to be retried on new, though still serious, allegations, even though the charge that she was a leader of the rebels has been dropped. If found guilty she could be given 20 years.
It's hard to believe the trial will be fair. "If there is one serious problem in Peru," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, "it's a lack of rule of law." The State Department agreed, noting "serious concerns about the openness and fairness... in cases related to terrorism in civilian courts."
Following Peru's recent presidential election, the Clinton administration seems to have lowered its voice, since Fujimori is seen as a valued partner in Washington's latest military intervention in Colombia. But if there is any hope for Berenson's freedom, it is Peru's need for renewed tourism, massive investments and American influence with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Milton Viorst has argued for "presidential clemency" for Jonathan Pollard in these pages. "The issue," he wrote, "is secret evidence, the abuse of trial procedures and prejudicial sentencing." I agree. Lori Berenson has suffered from the same abuses and more.
Through private diplomacy or outright pressure, it's time the U.S. had the courage to demand she be allowed to go home, for time already served or any other fair formula that can be devised.
Murray Polner is a former editor of Present Tense magazine. This essay originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week.