American Lori Berenson Released From Peru Prison After 15 Years

New York parents say they are 'ecstatic,' 15 years of 'horror' comes to end.

December 7, 2009, 6:55 PM

May 26, 2010— -- An American woman who was sentenced to a Peruvian prison by hooded judges 15 years ago is expected to walk free today along with the 1-year-old boy she gave birth to while in custody.

Lori Berenson, her braided brown hair hanging over an embroidered sweater, did not speak but nodded when asked by the judge if she accepted the decision.

"I'm happy with the sentence because justice was done," her lawyer, Anibal Apari, who is also father of her son, told The Associated Press.

Under her conditional release, Berenson, 40, must serve the remainder of her sentence in Peru until November 2015. She was charged with aiding left-wing revolutionaries.

Berenson's parents said they are "ecstatic" about their daughter's release. From the age of 27, Berenson lingered in stark prisons in Peru -- 3,629 miles from her family -- sentenced by a hooded military tribunal to 20 years in prison.

"Obviously, we're excited," said Judy Berenson, who is Lori Berenson's aunt. She said the Berensons were headed to Peru to see their daughter Thursday.

The Berensons estimated they spent more than $1 million on legal and travel fees to defend and support their daughter. For decades, they had been consumed with worry about her medical and emotional well-being.

"I think what was hardest for me was the knowledge that she was being unjustly deprived of living fully in the prime years of her life," her mother, New York University physics professor Rhoda Berenson, 67, told last year.

"It's been a horror," Mark Berenson. told last December. "Nothing could be worse for a parent."

Berenson gave birth to a son Salvador, now 1, whom she has been raising in prison. Her husband, Anibal Apari, whom she met in prison in 2003, had been released several years ago.

"[Salvador] has been in prison with her," Rhoda Berenson told New York's Daily News. "The two of them can go out and begin a new life."

Berenson was a college drop out when she was arrested in Peru for aiding leftist rebels.

The State Department confirmed that Berenson had been released by Peru's National Penal Court. "Beyond that, we can't comment," said spokesman Darby Holladay. "This was a Pervian judicial process and the decision to grant parole at this time was the responsibility of the court."

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, who for more than a decade had pushed for Berenson's release, said she was "excited" to learn about the court's decision last night.

"I think this is good news that she is essentially free to live with her family," said Michael Levin, Waters' communcations director.

For nearly two decades, despite desperate appeals by her parents, vows that they would not abandon her until she is brought home, and intervention by the U.S. State Department and two American presidents, Berenson had been in prison so long she had created an entire life for herself.

She married a fellow prisoner, and in May 2009 gave birth to her son Salvador.

Lori Berenson Dropped Out of MIT to Fight Abuses

Berenson had gone to Peru after dropping out of MIT to follow her ideals in Peru, a country that in the 1990s had a record of human rights abuses.

Pressure from Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as well as an army of diplomats, failed to get her out of prison until now.

"We broke records for the number of congressmen who signed letters," Rhoda Berenson told

Lori Berenson was plagued with medical problems, many of which developed in her first two years at a frigid maximum security prison with no heat and running water at 12,800 feet above sea level near the Bolivian border.

She developed Raynaud's syndrome from the freezing cold and eye problems after long periods of darkness during security lockdowns, according to her father, Mark Berenson, 69.

"I've seen her age," Berenson, a statistics professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, told last year. "It was a miracle she could become pregnant."

In 2009, his daughter underwent seven hours of surgery to repair a slipped disk in her vertebrae.

Berenson's story began in 1995, when she was arrested at the age of 26 on suspicion of aiding leftist rebels.

She was sentenced at first to life imprisonment, but a civilian court retried her in 2000 and convicted her of a lesser crime of terrorist collaboration and reduced her sentence. All along, she has denied any wrongdoing.

In prison, she met Apari, now a lawyer and former member of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, which was best known for its four-month takeover of the Japanese ambassador's residence in 1996 in Lima.

Berenson married Apari in 2003 when he was released from prison, and gave birth to Salvador in November and is raising him as a "single mom," according to her father.

Berenson's Parole Rescinded

According to the Berensons, their daughter will be expelled from Peru. Her son has dual U.S.-Peruvian citizenship and his grandparents said they have considered taking custody of the child.

Rhoda and Mark Berenson have made numerous trips to Peru -- about six a year over the last 15 years -- to visit their daughter in a variety of prisons. They were with her in Lima for the birth of their grandson in 2009 and again before Thanksgiving for her spinal surgery.

"It was really horrible in the beginning, but it has improved for Lori and all the prisoners," said Rhoda Berenson.

The concrete prison from where she will be released in the next 24 hours has few amenities. Water comes only once a day and prisoners store it for personal use. There are no regular toilets.

"She does a lot of squatting and is exposed to the elements, but it's not that cold," said her mother last year.

Rhoda Berenson said the birth of Salvador had a "huge effect on her in a very positive way."

"In those horrible years, something really wonderful came of it," she said. "Giving birth to Salvador meant that in spite of the Peruvian government's attempts to ruin her life, they didn't deprive her of motherhood."

Lori Berenson has said she still wants to help others and even though it's too late for her to become a doctor. Her mother said she told her she would like to do something "medically related" when she gets out of prison.

"She is still more interested in helping people than becoming rich," Rhoda Berenson said. "Those things haven't changed.

"Although the prison conditions are certainly stark -- particularly during the early years in the Andes when it was bitter cold -- and I had many concerns about Lori's health over the years, I always knew Lori was strong and would endure," she said.

"If someone told me years ago that this would happen, I would say I am just going to go in a cave and disappear," she said. "But you manage it. You have to prepare yourself somehow by trying to even out the ups and downs."

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