The Other Pardon: Obama Commutes Sentence of Controversial Puerto Rican Nationalist

Politics Features Oscar Lopez Rivera
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The Other Pardon: Obama Commutes Sentence of Controversial Puerto Rican Nationalist

President Obama has commuted Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera’s sentence. It was a decision that elated López Rivera’s supporters and advocates around the world. More than 270 individuals were granted commutations by Obama in an announcement on Tuesday afternoon.

As a result, López Rivera will be released on May 17, 2017, having served 35 of his 55-year sentence. In an interview with Paste Magazine, his long-time attorney Jan Susler said, “People all over the country are shedding tears of joy. It’s one of those things that the Mayor of San Juan said frequently. “This is a nation asking for the freedom of a man, asking for justice. That’s how people are celebrating it.”

The 74-year-old has been imprisoned since 1981 for his role in the nationalist group Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN), an organization linked with over 100 bombings from 1974 to the early 1980s in major U.S. cities. The violent tactics were carried out in the name of the Puerto Rican independence.

In 1975, a bombing at the Fraunces Tavern in New York City killed four patrons and injured sixty more. The FALN claimed responsibility, citing the incident as retaliation for a “CIA-ordered” bomb that killed two sympathizers and injured 11 bystanders in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. The FALN was considered a terrorist organization by U.S. security agencies during its existence. According to NPR, López Rivera spent five years in hiding for an alleged connection to co-owning an apartment containing dynamite and “FALN written materials.”

He was arrested in 1981 for running a red light and presenting a fake license, and was later on trial for his associations with FALN. A former member turned informant testified that López Rivera assisted in teaching members how to make detonation devices.

He was convicted for seditious conspiracy and illegal weapons possession. Since then, López Rivera has been in several high-security prisons, and spent 12 years in solitary confinement. López Rivera will go down in history as one of the longest-held political prisoners in the U.S. Despite his involvement with FALN, López Rivera was never convicted of a violent crime, but also did not refute those charges.

He and other formerly imprisoned FALN co-defendants asserted that under international law, American control over Puerto Rico was illegal colonization, and that U.S. courts did not have the jurisdiction to try them as criminals. López Rivera sought an international tribunal to assess his claims, but the U.S. government denied his requests. He has repeatedly denied involvement in specific incidences. Susler told Paste, “If anyone thought Oscar has something to do with them, you bet they would have prosecuted him. He has been adamant in saying he has no blood on his hands.”

López Rivera was additionally convicted of conspiracy to escape in an FBI sting operation, adding 15 extra years to his sentence. President Bill Clinton offered conditional clemency to 14 members of the FALN in 1999. López Rivera rejected the offer due to the condition that he renounce the FALN’s “use of terrorism to achieve their aim of independence.” He is the last remaining member of the FALN to remain in prison.

Susler described the process of applying for executive clemency to be different with the Obama administration than with Clinton’s. “In 1999, we had regular meetings with DOJ and White House Staff,” Susler explained. “When we tried to do that with the Obama administration, we were met with a “no.” But every administration does it their own way, and we are thrilled President Obama understood that this is something Puerto Rico needed.”

Originally born in San Sebastian, Puerto Rico in 1943, López Rivera moved to Chicago with his family in 1957. He was drafted into the military and served in the Vietnam War, and was awarded a Bronze star for his efforts. Upon his return to the States, he became a community organizer for the creation of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School in Chicago. Upon studying Puerto Rico-U.S. relations of the early-mid twentieth century, López Rivera came to the conclusion that Puerto Rico was still acting as a colony of the United States. He became more heavily involved in organizing for Puerto Rican independence from the United States.

Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898, when Spain ceded claim after the Spanish-American War, and has a Commonwealth status. Although Puerto Rico’s economy is inextricably ensconced by that of the fifty states, it does not have equal voting power, with its residents only able to vote in primaries or caucuses, not federal presidential elections.

A petition to release López Rivera was signed by over 100,000 signatories, and delivered to Washington, D.C. last week. This is not the first effort of support. Over the years, Nobel Prize Laureate South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, Former President Jimmy Carter, and several other Nobel Peace Prize Winners wrote to sitting presidents or spoke out publicly in support of his release. On Monday, a prayer ceremony, was held for López Rivera in Old San Juan, along with a video taping of messages to President Obama asking for a commutation.

U.S. representatives Luis Gutiérrez (Ill), José Serrano (NY), and Nydia Velázquez (NY) have called for his release. Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) brought attention to his case during the Democratic Primary. Sanders commented on Twitter after the announcement was made Tuesday afternoon.

Hamilton creator and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda had advocated for López Rivera, and tweeted on Tuesday evening:

He told New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito, who occasionally visits López Rivera in prison, that he will perform a show of Hamilton for him.

Susler said that López Rivera plans to move to Puerto Rico to spend time with his family upon release.