Institute on Religion and Democracy
August 18, 1999
President Clinton has expressed his willingness to grant a conditional clemency to a group of Puerto Rican terrorists serving sentences of up to 90 years. But the inmates, with Jesse Jackson's support, are thinking about rejecting the offer as an insult. Mayor Daly of Chicago has said his city will not be safe with the inmates loose. (Many of their bombings during the 1970's targeted Chicago.)
And Mayor Giuliani of New York called for release of a Justice Department report that supposedly opposed any clemency for the prisoners. Others, like The Wall Street Journal, have implied that the clemency is a cheap ploy to gain Puerto Rican votes for Hillary Clinton's New York Senate bid.
The 16 inmates claim they are "political prisoners" unfairly incarcerated for advocating a "free and socialist" Puerto Rico that is independent of the United States. Actually, most of them were activists in the Armed Forces of National Liberation (the Spanish acronym: FALN), that was involved in 130 bomb attacks from 1974 to 1983 that killed six people and injured 130 others, mostly in Chicago and New York. Several other inmates were part of the "Machete Welders," another armed revolutionary group that masterminded a $7.1 million Well Fargo robbery in Connecticut in 1983.
Left-wing Puerto Rican groups, several members of Congress, and liberal church organizations have been pressuring the Clinton Administration for several years seemingly without avail to offer a full amnesty to the prisoners. But on August 11 President Clinton offered to commute the sentences of all 16 prisoners if they would renounce the future use of violence and would comply with parole requirements.
Several prisoners have already indicated their inclination to reject a conditional clemency. "What I can't accept is that it restricts my association with the independence movement as a condition of probation," explains Elizam Escobar, who has served almost two decades of his 60-year sentence since his 1980 arrest. "They want to keep punishing us and exclude us from political life on the island."
"They are unacceptable conditions," agreed U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). "Our people know it and they understand that these are political prisoners." Gutierrez flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico to convene a press conference with Representative Nydia Valazquez (D-NY) and Representative Jose Serrano (D-NY) to express their outrage over Clinton's less than full clemency.
"Clinton made an error by not carefully analyzing what he was doing," Valazquez said. "I can't believe the conditions that are being imposed, while on the other hand we are talking about democracy in Croatia and other nations." Although supporters of the prisoners tout democracy, no plebiscite in Puerto Rico has ever shown more than a tiny fraction of the electorate favoring independence from the United States.
At the time of Clinton's announcement, Jesse Jackson was already in Puerto Rico protesting against a U.S. Navy training facility there. "To free them under those conditions is to give them a life sentence," Jackson sneered. Puerto Rico's governor and other local officials are more supportive. They like the expectation that the inmates renounce violence before gaining their freedom.
But White House spokespersons have not been completely accurate when defending the clemency offer. Deputy White House Chief of Staff Maria Echaveste claims, "None of those individuals were convicted for or found to have anything directly to do with an incident that caused death." She is correct only in that the prisoners were not charged specifically with murder but with corollary charges such as armed robbery and illegal weapons possession. They earned stiff sentences because judges and juries understood their direct complicity in the bombing campaign that killed six victims.
The FALN's most notorious strike was the 1975 bombing of the Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan, killing four patrons. An attack on the Mobil Oil Building, also in New York, killed another man. A bomb in a Puerto Rican restaurant killed a six-year-old child. Three police officers were maimed by an FALN bomb at New York's police headquarters. Dozens more were wounded in other FALN attacks.
Perhaps to his credit, President Clinton's offer at least requires something of the prisoners. When President Carter pardoned five Puerto Rican terrorists, he did so unconditionally, despite their lack of remorse for a shooting attack on the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954 and an assassination attempt on President Truman in 1950. The current prisoners will not only have to renounce violence, they will also each have to personally request a pardon from the President, accepting responsibility for their crimes. During their trials during the 1980's, they refused to acknowledge the authority of U.S. law, arguing that the U.S. is an illegal "colonial power" in Puerto Rico. (Almost all their crimes were committed in the mainland U.S.)
One prisoner, even if he accepts clemency, will still have to serve more time for a prison escape attempt. Another prisoner has been released once but was returned for refusing to comply with parole requirements. None of the prisoners has expressed regret for their years of terror. Several threatened the judge and juries when they were tried, and one judge expressed regret that he could not impose the death penalty.
In a newspaper interview last year, one prisoner, Oscar Lopez Rivera, explained that "ideological violence" perpetrated by U.S. colonialism against Puerto Rico was far worse than the FALN bombing campaign. "To fight this violence you have to use violence." He laments: "America is the worst place to be a political prisoner."
"They are dangerous to police officers, the bomb and arson squads, and dangerous to neighborhood people," said Chicago's Mayor Daley said after hearing of the offered clemency. Most of the prisoners were tried and sentenced in a Chicago federal court. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Justice Department has in the past strongly advised against releasing the prisoners, which is why Mayor Giuliani is calling for the Justice Department to release its confidential files. The Journal, to justify its suspicions of complicity with the First Lady's campaign effort, points out that out of over 3,000 petitions for clemency, President Clinton has granted only three requests besides the Puerto Rican prisoners.
At his press conference in San Juan, Congressman Serrano claimed that the inmates are to Puerto Rican voters what Israel is to Jewish voters, what Ulster is to Irish voters, and what South Africa is to black voters. New York's Puerto Rican community has shared its views with Mrs. Clinton, he said.
Joining the congressmen and other presumed spokespersons for the Puerto Rican community has been an array of mainline church leaders. The National Council of Churches has not only called for the inmates' release, but hailed their "profoundly impressive moral character" and "spiritual depth." The Council's general secretary, Joan Campbell, has visited the White House to lobby for a full amnesty. Officials of the United Methodist Church have compared the prisoners to the Apostles Peter and Paul, gushing that "some of our greatest spiritual heroes spent time in jail for political reasons." Several Catholic and Episcopal bishops have also added their endorsement to the inmates' cause.
None of the religious groups, as a precondition for release, have demanded any repentance from the terrorists, who in their eyes apparently have nothing for which to repent. So in this particular situation, President Clinton, in his demand for an admission of responsibility from the prisoners, at least has shown more moral astuteness than some of America's left-wing church leaders.