Aid and Comfort

WRITING - John Bloom


Let's imagine for a moment that one of those terrorist cells in New Jersey lived in an apartment house--several guys together, in several rooms. That's what they did, you know, lived in modern American privacy- obsessed apartment buildings in New Jersey and Florida and San Diego. That's where they planned their crimes.

And let's imagine for a moment that these terrorists in New Jersey befriended a pretty young French-Tunisian woman in the area who is looking for a place to stay. They ask her to sign a joint lease with them--to avoid suspicion--and everyone moves into the same building.

The woman--let's call her Lori--likes these men. They're exotic. They're passionate. They tell her stories of how the people in their home countries are oppressed, and that much of that oppression is caused by the United States. Lori is a sucker for the underdog. She wants to help these men with their social justice organization. So she signs the lease for them, and she cooks for them, and she helps out around the apartment. She shows them how to use the computer. She even learns the name of their organization, al-Qaida, and respects them for sending money back to Afghanistan to help the widows and orphans and maimed soldiers who were victims of the ten-year war with the Soviet Union.

The impressionable young woman soon falls in love with one of the men. We'll call him Muhammad. But the love affair doesn't go well. She's too American; he's too Arab. She's a child of privilege, used to having her independence. He's been poorly educated in a madrassa and wants a woman to obey him. Lori breaks up with Muhammad and he moves to another part of the apartment building, but she still stays in touch with him and his friends. She admires their cause even if she doesn't like their traditions.

One day Muhammad casually asks her about the building where she sometimes works, the World Trade Center. He asks what she knows about the floor plans, and she tells him as best she can. He asks which companies are based on which floors, and she helps him with that, too.

On a certain day in September, Lori is riding a bus home from the mall where she's been shopping. When she gets off the bus, four tight-lipped police officers tell her that she's under arrest. She's placed in shackles and taken immediately to a secret location where she is not allowed to contact her parents or anyone else. She is questioned for several hours about al- Qaida--brutal questioning--and then she is arraigned in secret and held as a "material witness." Later she is charged with terrorism and conspiracy. But she is not informed of the charges and not allowed to see an attorney, because the indictment is sealed.

For nine days Lori is interrogated. Afterwards she's left in a cell for 11 more days and told that things will go better for her if she confesses. She's also told that, because she's a foreign national, she'll be tried in a special tribunal established for terrorism cases. The trial will be secret. An attorney will be assigned to her, but he'll only be allowed to examine documents that don't affect national security.

Muhammad, it turns out, is the chief witness against her. He's been captured and faces the death penalty, so he's trying to bargain his way toward a lighter sentence by cooperating with the police. He's also still stung by the way he was rejected by Lori. And so he's identified her as a member of al-Qaida.

Justice is swift. The judges listen to the evidence about how she served food to the terrorists, helped them with their computer, and gave them information about the World Trade Center. She even rented the apartment building where the crimes were planned. The defendant swears she isn't a member of any terrorist organization and doesn't condone violence, but the facts are the facts. They convict her and sentence her to life in prison.

Before she starts serving her sentence, she's allowed to speak to the media. She's anguished, fearful, beaten down by weeks of incarceration, and when the cameras are turned on she speaks angrily and harshly about what a terrible country America is. When the reporters press her to explain her involvement with terrorists, she says, "The members of Al-Qaida are not criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement."

That's all the American public needs to hear. The woman seems to be defending them. Who cares about her sorry definitions of Al-Qaida? We know what it is, and we know that it's pure evil. And she was a part of that evil. Throw away the key.

Condemned by a tribunal. Condemned in the court of public opinion (which can sometimes be much more important). There's not much hope for Lori. Her anguished parents come from France and hire other attorneys to prepare her appeal. They eventually get a meeting with the French ambassador, who is sympathetic to Lori's case but says there's not much he can do. She was convicted under American law.

But it's an unfair law, the parents insist. By this time they've been reading the treaties and rules by which international law is conducted, and they find four separate agreements that the United States seems to have violated. But the American Justice Department responds coldly: the new terrorism laws take precedence over everything else. The woman is guilty. She must remain in prison.

Eventually the parents are able to apply enough pressure to get the United States to soften on one issue and one issue only: the secret tribunal. So Lori is retried in a federal court. This time she has a more vigorous defense, but the videotape of her angry denunciation of the United States is played for the jury. Again she's convicted, this time for harboring and giving aid to a terrorist organization, and sentenced to 20 years.

French civil-rights organizations are outraged. Amnesty International takes up her cause. Human Rights Watch weighs in with a brief on her behalf. All of this attention from outside agitators just makes the American government more adamant in its campaign to keep the woman in prison. One American President even makes it part of his campaign. These type of people will never be molly-coddled as long as he is in office. Look at the tape! The woman supports al-Qaida! Why does she refuse to condemn the terrorists?

And eventually that's what dooms her. She's convicted, not so much for cooking a few meals for the terrorists, but for stating publicly that she doesn't think she has the right to judge al-Qaida. The final irony is that, in a practice that we normally associate with the old Soviet Union, she's imprisoned as "an enemy of the state." She has the wrong attitude.

The story I just told is more or less true. But it didn't happen in the United States. It's the story of Lori Berenson, an American woman who did social work in Latin America and was arrested on November 30, 1995, as she stepped off a bus. The terrorist organization wasn't al-Qaida, but the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). The target wasn't the World Trade Center, but the Peruvian Congress. The apartment building wasn't in New Jersey but in Lima. The angry televised statement wasn't on CNN, but on Peruvian national TV. The spurned lover's name wasn't Muhammad, but he did give evidence against her. And everything else is pretty much the way it happened.

Lori Berenson was prosecuted under let's-get-tough-on- terrorism laws that were passed in 1993 and are extremely popular with the Peruvian public. They're especially popular when they're used against foreign nationals.

Lori Berenson has been in prison for five years now, and every human rights group in the world has said she is innocent of terrorism and that the Peruvian special terrorism laws violate international standards. Among them are the failure to allow privacy between Lori and her lawyer, the interrogations without counsel present, the long periods of detention without access to the outside world, and, most important, the fact that the judges get their power from the executive branch and so are not an independent judiciary. (Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori has made a whole political career out of his wars against terrorism. He believes Lori Berenson is guilty, or at least that she's so unpopular that her guilt doesn't matter.)

One of the many appeals written on Lori's behalf reads as follows:

"Proceedings in the military courts [of Peru]--and those for terrorism in the civilian courts--do not meet internationally accepted standards of openness, fairness, and due process."

That came from the State Department earlier this year. Our State Department. The Bush State Department.