ON NOVEMBER 30, PERUVIAN national police squadrons converged on a villa in the suburbs of Lima after they were told it might be a safe house for the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru -- one of the two terrorist organizations that have plagued the country for the past dozen years. The occupants engaged the police in a 12-hour shootout. When the authorities finally gained the upper hand and were able to enter the building, they found an arsenal of weapons and uniforms, as well as 8,000 rounds of ammunition and 3,000 sticks of dynamite. Twenty-odd Tupac Amaru militants were taken into custody, including its second in command -- and a 26-year-old New Yorker by the name of Lori Berenson, who was subsequently brought to trial by a military court and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Since then she has become something of a cause celebre in America. The New York Times has taken up the Berenson case with special passion, since her parents are both residents of Gramercy Park, teachers at local colleges, and by all accounts exemplary citizens.

What is the case against Lori Berenson? She was working in Peru with journalist's credentials, which she obtained with false documentation. She had rented both the villa and an apartment for the use of the Tupac Amaru guerrillas. According to the Peruvian authorities, the building where she was apprehended was being used as a base from which to launch an attack on the Peruvian congress, with a view to taking various members hostage in order to exchange them for guerrillas currently in custody. Among other documents discovered at the time of her arrest were a chart of the seating arrangements in the congress building and a detailed escape plan for the house in the event of a raid. Both appear to be in Berenson's handwriting.

Berenson does not deny that she was a member of the guerrilla group, but insists that the group is nonviolent and that the building where she was captured was a school. She was defended at her trial by Grimaldo Achahui, the guerrilla group's lawyer of choice. At her trial Achahui admitted that she was a "collaborator" (but not a "leader") of the revolutionary group -- a legalistic distinction that, if accepted, would have gotten the case transferred to a civilian court, where penalties are lighter. The tactic failed to convince the military judges to remand jurisdiction.

Indeed, the oblique admission of guilt it offered stunned the human-rights community in Peru, which has been conspicuously absent in the campaign to free the accused.

For its part, the Peruvian press in recent weeks has been wondering out loud whether there are two laws for terrorists -- an implacable one for swarthy foreigners who ply their trade at places like the World Trade Center in New York, and a second, infinitely forgiving one for Americans on a revolutionary lark in strange, distant countries.

Lori Berenson appears to be another one of those Generation Xers suffering from what Joseph Epstein calls "sixties envy." According to a lugubrious portrait sketched by Carey Goldberg in the New York Times, from early adolescence she displayed a "serious streak of altruism," serving food in soup kitchens and seeking "responsible summer jobs [instead of going to] frivolous summer camps." During her student years at MIT she became interested in Central America through an anthropology course and went there for the first time in 1988 on a trip sponsored by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of E1 Salvador. Upon her return she went on to work for human- rights groups in Boston, New York, and Washington. She moved to Nicaragua in 1989 to bask in the final moments of the Sandinista revolution. When the Sandinistas were ejected from offce by popular vote the following year, she moved to El Salvador, where she met, married, and divorced a Salvadoran. The next step of her quest took her briefly to Panama, then to Ecuador (where she is supposed to have met the leader of the Tupac Amaru guerrillas), and finally to Lima.

Berenson's altruism is matched, if not exceeded, by a penchant for self- dramatization. At a press conference before her sentencing she claimed that she was being punished "for concerning myself with the situation of hunger and misery in this country. . . . No one can deny that in Peru there exists great social injustice and institutional violence. . . . It's not acceptable that children die of hunger because of the subhuman situation in which they live."

She is right about the hunger and misery: Peru is one of the poorer countries in Latin America, though in recent years it has experienced a dramatic upturn in its social and economic indicators. How well or poorly Peru is doing to meet the needs of its citizens remains, of course, a matter of opinion, and Berenson is certainly entitled to hers. But let the record show that she is charged not for her views but for her involvement with a terrorist group that, in recent years, has been involved in assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, robberies, and attacks against innocent people, many of them poor.

Berenson's defenders have chosen to sidestep altogether the issue of her guilt or innocence, as well they might, given the evidence. What, after all, is the likelihood that a young woman fully fluent in Spanish, well-traveled, and politically sophisticated, would remain totally ignorant of the history of the Tupac Amaru guerrillas? That she would be sufficiently trusted by their leaders to be permitted to rent real estate on their behalf without being something more than an occasional sympathizer? That she could live for weeks in the same building with its second-in-command and an arsenal of guns, uniforms, ammunition, and dynamite and imagine that it was, in her words, a " school for political thinking"? That her sketches of the Peruvian congress building -- if in fact they are hers -- were just doodles?

Rather than address these issues, her supporters have chosen to focus on procedural ones. Some of these are not trivial. She is charged with treason (aggravated terrorism), which, we are told, is impossible, since she is not a Peruvian. The judges who presided at her trial were masked, so learn their identities. Since the judges had no legal training, it is said, they were not qualified to apply the law. Berenson's lawyers were not allowed, we are told, to cross-examine those who presented evidence against her. As former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, who recently joined her defense team, has put it, "The military courts of Peru . . . are not concerned with truth and justice. They are instruments of oppression. They convict whomever they choose to convict." The title of the Times's lead editorial on January 16 stated the matter succinctly: "Peru Mocks Due Process."

As a matter of fact, it is entirely possible for someone to be charged with treason without being a citizen of that country -- even in the United States (see Carlisle v. the United States, 1872). The judges were all officers in the Peruvian army's judge-advocate general's corps, which is to say, they were lawyers in uniform, not field officers. Berenson's lawyer was allowed to cross-examine witnesses, though at lesser length than would have been the case in a civilian trial.

The decision to remand certain cases to "faceless courts," as Peruvian ambassador Ricardo Luna explained in a letter to the New York Times, is the result of a consensual decision by the Peruvian congress to protect the lives of judges, who in the past have been exposed to terrorist attacks and reprisals. (Such anonymity, he points out, has been applied in similar cases by other countries, most recently Italy and Colombia.) Unquestionably, such procedures are unusual and far from ideal; on the other hand, so is the security situation in Peru, which over the last 15 years has lost more than 30,000 people to terrorism. As Michael Radu noted in the Christian Science Monitor, "In a country like the United States that would translate into an Oklahoma bombing every three days."

One would never guess it from reading the public prints -- certainly Berenson took no notice of the fact -- but with all its troubles Peru has managed to remain a functioning democracy with regular elections, a free press, and opposition parties. The latter include two Marxist parties whose leaders, accused of "revisionism" for participating in elections, have often been targets of the Tupac Amaru group and its rival, the Sendero Luminoso. At this writing the Sendero problem is largely under control, with its leader, Abimael Guzman, currently in custody. The Tupac Amaru group remains a serious threat, as the recent raid on the house in Lima demonstrates. Unfortunately, there is a relationship between Peru's gradual success in the war against terrorism and the kind of stern measure taken in the Berenson case.

For their part, ordinary Peruvians are not amused by foreigners who have come to their country in search of revolutionary self-expression. As one nurse slightly older than Lori Berenson told the Times, "She's just another one of those liberal, naive gringas who thinks she has been appointed by God to save the world. I don't feel sorry for her." Ungenerous remarks, no doubt, but the woman who made them -- and millions like her -- have to bear the freight.

In spite of the outcry in liberal and human rights circles in the United States, it is unlikely that Berenson will serve anything like a life sentence. Her case is still subject to appeal, and extrapolating from a similar situation involving a young Italian woman several years ago, she will probably be released and sent home within a year or two. (In the meanwhile she has chosen not to avail herself of the option, available under a bilateral treaty, to serve out her sentence at a correctional facility in the United States.) Once free, she can expect a six-figure book contract, lucrative fees on the lecture circuit, and a made-for-TV movie. For Peruvians, the prospects are less brilliant: lectures from the United States, and several more seasons of altruism coming out of the barrel of a gun.

Mark Falcoff is a resident scholar and specialist in Latin American affairs at the American Enterprise Institute. Presidency.

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