Moral Low Ground

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Obama Commutes Sentence of Puerto Rican Activist and Political Prisoner Oscar López Rivera

Protesters march for the release of Oscar López Rivera during the 2014 New York City Puerto Rican Day Parade. (Photo: @viajero/Flickr Creative Commons)

Amid a final flurry of reprieves before leaving office, President Barack Obama on Tuesday commuted the sentence of Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar López Rivera, one of the world’s longest-jailed political prisoners.

The Guardian reports Obama has issued a record number of pardons and commutations during his last days in office, including commuting the sentence of convicted Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. According to the White House, Obama issued 209 grants of commutation and 64 pardons on Tuesday alone.

“[Oscar is] very, very grateful,” López Rivera’s attorney Jan Susler told the Associated Press. “One of the things he said was: ‘Tomorrow’s my daughter’s birthday. What an amazing present for her.'”

López Rivera, 74, sometimes called the “Nelson Mandela of Puerto Rico,” has been imprisoned for 35 years after being convicted of seditious conspiracy and other non-violent federal offenses in connection with the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. The decorated Vietnam veteran and respected Chicago community activist was accused by the federal government of being a member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a separatist group responsible for more than 120 bomb attacks between 1974 and 1983. The overwhelming majority of the bombings resulted in no death or injury, however four people died in a 1975 attack in New York City and a handful of other bombings resulted in serious injuries.

Minimizing danger to human life was a paramount concern, López Rivera insisted. “For me, human life is sacred,” he told the Guardian last year. “We called it ‘armed propaganda’ – using targets to draw attention to our struggle.”

“We realized other tactics to armed force could be more effective, [like] mobilizing people through peaceful campaigning,” he added. “Morally, also, we came to see that we had to lead by example, that if we are advocating for a better world then there are things you cannot do. You cannot get a better world by being unjust yourself.”

López Rivera had 15 years added to his sentence in 1988 after he was convicted of plotting to escape from a federal prison.

President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 FALN members in 1999 but López Rivera’s refused to accept the deal because two fellow activists were not included. “When I was in Vietnam I never left anyone behind,” he explained to the Guardian. “That’s not my practice, I couldn’t do it.” The two prisoners have since been released.

Over the decades, prominent supporters including Pope Francis, several Puerto Rican members of Congress, musicians Ricky Martin and Residente of Calle 13 and Nobel peace laureates Mairead Maguire, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel have raised awareness and pressure to free López Rivera. “Oscar López Rivera is imprisoned for the ‘crime’ of… conspiring to free his people from the shackles of imperial injustice,” Tutu declared. “Now is the time for his immediate and unconditional release.”

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) called López Rivera “the last political prisoner from Puerto Rico that is still being held” in federal prison. “Oscar is a friend and a mentor,” Gutiérrez, who added that “the 35 years Oscar has served for crimes that were not violent is too long to be in jail,” said in an interview with Democracy Now!

However, FALN victims and others argued against clemency for a man they call a terrorist. Calling FALN “the most prolific domestic terrorist organization ever to wage war against the United States of America,” victims, victims’ relatives and law enforcement officials wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to deny clemency to López Rivera.

“While Mr. López may be characterized by terror supporters as an aging individual who represents little threat to the public, he already defiantly refused a previous presidential clemency once and remains an un-rehabilitated revolutionary,’ as the sentencing judge called him, unworthy of any beneficence from the Office of the President,” the letter stated.

“I’m willing to forgive, but he never once said he was sorry, showed no remorse at all,” Mary Connor Tully, whose husband, Frank Connor, was killed in the January 24, 1975 FALN bombing of the Fraunces Tavern in New York City, told the AP. “He’s an old man and he’ll get to live his life free, and hopefully he can live with the sins he committed, and that he’ll answer one day to a higher power than us for what he did.”

Puerto Ricans overwhelmingly cheered López Rivera’s release. “Oscar Lopez Rivera has been set free!! Puerto Rico, we come from the same heritage of struggle,” tweeted Residente. “We accomplished it united as brothers.”

“It’s wonderful news,” Alejandro Molina, coordinator of the National Boricua Human Rights Network, told the AP. Molina said that after his release, López Rivera “wants to be actively involved in solving the problems of Puerto Rican society.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who had championed López Rivera’s release, tweeted he appreciates Obama “listening to Puerto Ricans and people worldwide who believe Oscar Lopez Rivera deserves a chance to enjoy his freedom.”

“I am overjoyed and overwhelmed with emotion,” Rep. Gutiérrez said in a statement. “The long fight against colonialism in the Caribbean has had many chapters and we have all put violence behind us. Releasing Oscar López Rivera back to his homeland and his people is a step towards peace and reconciliation and is being celebrated by Puerto Ricans of all political stripes, classes, colors and geographies.”

The Chicago Tribune reports New York playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, said he was “sobbing with gratitude” and said he would play Alexander Hamilton at a Chicago performance of his smash hit musical Hamilton for López Rivera, who is scheduled to be released May 17.

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