Rebel get indignant without cause

Posted: Jun 22, 2001 12:00 AM
I'm a big believer that some people are "asking for trouble." When stunt skydivers die, I admit, I feel less sorrow than when kids get hurt in a car accident. When snake-handlers get bitten by poisonous vipers, I'll often say, "Well, you know, that (ital) does (end ital) happen sometimes to people who handle snakes for a living." And, when a young woman decides to play Marxist terrorist in war torn South American countries, I don't get too worked up when she gets thrown in jail. I felt that way when Lori Berenson was sentenced to prison in 1996, and I felt that way this week when she was retried and sent back to jail. Let's recap for a moment. Berenson was a classic "sandal-ista": the sort of earnest hippy-activist hybrid who, giddy with '60s nostalgia, went weak-kneed for Spanish-accented Marxists. She dropped out of MIT in the 1980s to bum around South America with lefty and Communist-backed groups in El Salvador and Nicaragua. After the formerly Soviet-backed Sandinistas were democratically defeated at the polls, Berenson decided she needed real revolutionary action to soothe her disappointment. So, she moved to Peru looking for action - and she found it. On Nov. 30, 1995, squads from the Peruvian national police stormed Berenson's home in the suburbs outside of Lima. She insists that the house was a "school for political thinking." This is a bit odd since the police could only gain access to this "school" after a 12-hour shootout, killing two terrorists and one police officer. Once inside, the police found 8,000 rounds of ammunition, 3,000 sticks of dynamite, some uniforms belonging to the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (known by its Spanish acronym, MRTA). Oddly, few conventional school supplies were found. Until Peru's bloody war on terrorism ended a few years ago, the Tupac Amaru was one of the world's most notoriously savage terrorist outfits. Which is why the police found it relevant that more than a dozen members of the MRTA, including its second-highest official, were living in Berenson's house. The police also found a hand-drawn seating chart of the Peruvian Congress and a detailed escape plan in the event of an assault on the safe house. The Peruvian government says these documents are in Berenson's handwriting. Prosecutors also say Berenson used bogus journalist credentials to case the Peruvian Congress as part of a scheme to take dozens of legislators hostage, so the MRTA could exchange them for jailed fellow terrorists. At Berenson's military trial in 1996, her lawyer (who has represented some 100 other members of the terrorist group Berenson denies membership in) conceded that Berenson was a "collaborator" with the Tupac Amaru but by no means was she a "leader" of the group. The tribunal, which wore hoods over their faces to avoid terrorist retaliations - much to the annoyance of American civil libertarians, found her guilty. Prior to her sentencing, Berenson delivered an angry assault on the Peruvian government, simultaneously claming the Tupac Amaru were a "non-violent group" on the one hand while vowing she would "never" wane in her support for the "revolutionary movement" on the other. Incapable of outgrowing the penchant for melodrama that prompted her to drop out of college in the first place, Berenson insisted that she was being punished "for concerning myself with the situation of hunger and misery in this country." Perhaps it was this less than complete contrition that spurred the court to give her a life sentence. Understandably, Berenson's defenders rarely address whether she's actually guilty. Indeed, it's hard to understand how a woman completely fluent not just in Spanish but in the argot of fringe left-wing revolutionary politics could be clueless enough not to notice dozens of hulking Peruvian terrorists traipsing through her house. Berenson has claimed, according to The Washington Post, that "cultural idiosyncrasies" kept her from prying into what the guys upstairs were doing with 8,000 rounds of ammunition and 3,000 sticks of dynamite. Nevertheless, she is a cult hero among the sort of people who think expensive lithographs of Che Guevara are chic. In 1999, 200 congressmen even signed a letter demanding that President Clinton "take all necessary steps, short of going to war" to free Berenson. The New York Times, various celebrities and intellectuals and the usual human rights groups have tried to make the rough justice of the Peruvian legal system the issue. The irony here is that these are also the same folks who usually whine every time America "imperialistically" throws its weight around the world. Regardless, Peru finally relented, agreeing to retry the unrepentant radical in a civilian court. This week, to no one's surprise, they found her guilty again. But they did reduce her sentence to 20 years, minus the five she's already served. Be assured: We'll hear more lamentations about how this "prisoner of conscience" didn't get a fair shake. And, maybe, according to our notions of due process, she didn't. But that's not the same thing as saying she didn't get into precisely the sort of trouble she went looking for.