The Magazine


Feb 26, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 23 • By MARK FALCOFF
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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.