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Berenson's Closed Military Trial Was a Blatant Denial of Justice

THE sentence recently imposed by an anonymous military tribunal in Peru on American citizen Lori Helene Berenson and a Panamanian friend for collaborating with a guerrilla movement is a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Worse yet, it may set a dangerous judicial precedent for the still notoriously fragile democracies of Latin America.

From the legal standpoint, Ms. Berenson's right to a ''fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal,'' as spelled out by Article 10 of the UN-sponsored declaration, was clearly violated when her case was put under military jurisdiction. Both Peru and the US have signed the declaration.

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The argument that trying Berenson and her collaborator by a military court protected the defendants against possible retaliation from the guerrillas does not hold up to serious analysis. And identities of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and witnesses could have been protected the same way had the case been tried by a civilian court.

The issue goes much deeper than shielding identities. Behind that tactic is a political decision, taken in a country where democratic values have traditionally been short-lived and whose president, Alberto Fujimori, has assumed almost dictatorial powers since 1993.

That year Mr. Fujimori had a new Constitution drafted, which became effective on Dec. 31, 1993. In it, terrorism is described as ''treason to the Fatherland'' - a crime typified as spying or betraying one's country in times of war.

In Latin America, treason is a crime generally punishable under military justice codes, which are not applicable to civilians. Among Latin American jurists, there is ample consensus that treason can only be committed by natives of the betrayed country - never by foreigners.

When Peru broadened the constitutional concept of treason to arbitrarily include anyone accused of helping a guerrilla movement, regardless of nationality, many lawyers there and elsewhere criticized it as a blatant, irreparable contradiction.

President Fujimori has enjoyed good relations with the military because, among other reasons, he gave them carte blanche to deal with insurgents. Political violence has caused more than 30,000 deaths in Peru since 1980.

During his tenure, Fujimori has dissolved Congress, ruled by decree, and arbitrarily silenced opposition leaders, while crushing terrorist movements with little regard for human rights.

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He certainly never saw a problem in having an American and a Panamanian tried behind closed doors by a masked military tribunal. After all, the laws under which these two were tried had been passed by an obedient Congress whose legitimacy, following Fujimori's palace coup, was highly debatable.

At stake here is the possible arbitrary extension of the concept of treason to foreign nationals. If the Peruvian lead is followed in other Latin American countries, nobody could be sure of his or her civil rights anywhere in the region.

Berenson's actions may have been highly reproachable, but her right to due process and a fair, open, and public trial cannot be questioned. That concept is at the core of any civilized society's coexistence with its own members.

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