Parents of Jailed American Visit Stark Mountain Penitentiary
LYNN F. MONAHAN
Dec. 08, 1996
PUNO, Peru (AP) _ After 11 months confined to a frigid prison cell on a wind-swept plain high in the Andes Mountains, Lori Berenson got an early Christmas over the weekend: a visit from her parents.
Carrying gifts _ including books, New York bagels and home-made chocolate chip cookies _ Rhoda and Mark Berenson were allowed to see their 27-year-old daughter late Saturday for the first time in a year.
What they saw was at once a relief and a cause for concern.
Ms. Berenson is serving a life sentence in Peru's notorious Yanamayo prison for terrorists. A secret military court panel convicted her earlier this year of treason for aiding leftist guerrillas.
``Her fingers were sort of grotesque ... sort of deformed,'' her father said. The constant cold, at an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet, has left her hands cut, bruised and swollen.
Ms. Berenson bundles herself in layers of sweaters to ward off the cold, which can drop to near zero Fahrenheit at night. She had clearly lost weight and was hoarse from chronic laryngitis.
But her mood was good and her parents said they recognized the ``same old Lori'' they knew as she was growing up in New York City.
``She didn't look terrible. She had long hair, long beautiful hair. She will always be beautiful to me,'' Mark Berenson said, breaking into tears in a Puno hotel room after visiting the nearby prison, 525 miles southeast of Lima.
After being barred from seeing their daughter for one year, the Berenson's trekked more than 4,000 miles for a half-hour visit with Lori, whom they could only see in dim light over a table divided by two layers of screening.
``This is the worst year a parent could have,'' said Mark Berenson, who has struggled with nightmares and depression over his daughter's imprisonment.
Rhoda Berenson said, ``It's one year in which we've aged 10.''
Although her parents say their daughter has not been physically abused in the prison, she lives in conditions her father calls ``brutal and designed to produce a slow death.''
Ms. Berenson and another woman prisoner share a 6 1/2-by-10 feet cell in which there is no heating and the only water available is ice-cold and sparingly distributed by guards.
The glassless windows allow little sunlight but plenty of merciless wind that whips up off nearby Lake Titicaca. Her bed is a concrete slab, her toilet a hole in the floor.
She gets just 30 minutes a day outside of her cell for exercise.
She has a perpetual sore throat, and recently battled the flu. The food is usually cold and insufficient and she has digestive problems, especially with legumes, a stable of the prison diet, her parents said.
According to the Peruvian news media, the cold is so severe at Yanamayo that over time the prisoner's health weakens, a fear the Berenson's have for their daughter.
Many inmates suffer depression and other mental disturbances, according to former inmates and guards at the prison. Some depressed prisoners cry and throw themselves against the bars when not medicated.
But the Berensons' say their daughter was cheerful and full of questions about her family, friends and supporters back home.
``She's courageous and she's caring and she's compassionate,'' her father said. She was worried about her parents making the arduous and expensive trip to the Peruvian mountains, and about the 70 percent of the roughly 460 prisoners who receive no visitors or gifts.
``I wouldn't bring her up any differently,'' Mark Berenson said as he grasped a ``chullo,'' a brightly colored Peruvian cap that his daughter had knitted him for Christmas.
Ms. Berenson had worked as a human-rights activist in Central America before coming to Peru in November 1994. She was arrested Nov. 30, 1995 in Lima on charges of aiding the pro-Cuban Tupac Amaru guerrillas.
Among other charges, she was accused of arms trafficking for the rebels and of plotting with them to stage a raid on Congress to kidnap representatives.
The Berensons say all that is nonsense. They say their daughter was unwittingly caught up with the group that she believed had disavowed armed struggle.
``I'm innocent of the preposterous charges,'' she reiterated to her parents Saturday.
The Berensons and the U.S. State Department are demanding that Ms. Berenson be tried in open civilian court with a chance to defend herself.
The Berensons said their daughter remains optimistic that one day she will get a fair, public trial.