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Oscar López Rivera: Will Obama Pardon This Political Prisoner?

The Puerto Rican activist convicted of “seditious conspiracy” is now one of the longest-held political prisoners.

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“Mr. Margolis has said that there are democratic ways to struggle and get things done. He forgets to tell you that I have a history of precisely that. That I have marched. That I have taken part in demonstrations. I have begged and pleaded. I have a history that has not been presented here. I have marched alongside black people for their rights. I have marched in support of jobs. I have a history of that. I have marched for access to decent housing. I have a history of that. I have marched against the war in Vietnam. I am a veteran of that war. And I have a history of that. […] Mr. Margolis does not know how it feels to be a Puerto Rican in this country. Mr. Margolis does not know how it feels to be black in this country. He does not know the indignation one feels when the police, who supposedly represent law and order, call us “spic” or “nigger” and then spit in our face. I have had people spit in my face for being Puerto Rican. And I have been arrested for participating peacefully and legally in public demonstrations. So that which Mr. Margolis alludes to does not exist. […]

“If I am standing here today, it is not because I lack the courage to fight, but rather because I have the courage to fight. I am certain, and will reaffirm, that Puerto Rico will be a free and sovereign nation.”

– Oscar López Rivera, at his trial for seditious conspiracy, 1981

Oscar López Rivera, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and respected community activist, is now one of the longest-held political prisoners in the world.

In 1981, López Rivera was convicted in the United States, in truly Orwellian fashion, of the thought crime of “seditious conspiracy,” despite never having been accused of causing harm to anyone, let alone taking a life. Having been deemed dangerous by the US government, López Rivera was imprisoned. His release date, without a presidential pardon, will be 2027, when he is 84 years old. May 29, 2015, is the 34th anniversary of his arrest.

In the late 1970s, López Rivera and other young Puerto Ricans, inspired by guerrilla movements around the world, committed themselves to working toward the independence of Puerto Rico in a clandestine fashion. He was a well-respected community activist and an independence leader for many years, having helped create both the Puerto Rican High School and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. He was also involved in the struggle for bilingual education in public schools and to force universities to actively recruit Latino students, staff and faculty. But López Rivera was eventually convicted of “seditious conspiracy” and other charges stemming from his participation in the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), a Marxist-Leninist organization that sought to transform Puerto Rico into a communist state during the 1970s.

Jan Susler, López Rivera’s attorney who works with the People’s Law Office in Chicago, told Truthout she believes his imprisonment based on “seditious conspiracy” is “overtly political” and is both harsh and disproportionate.

“It’s important to see Oscar not as an isolated case, but as the latest example of a long trajectory of Puerto Rican resistance to US colonialism and the extent to which the US will go to try to maintain its colonial control over Puerto Rico,” she said.

Twelve and a half years of López Rivera’s imprisonment have taken place in solitary confinement, including within supermax prisons. López Rivera has been routinely held in conditions not unlike those at the military prison at Guantánamo Bay – conditions which the International Red Cross has called “tantamount to torture.”

Most of the people arrested with López Rivera were granted clemency by President Bill Clinton on his last day in office, and released on parole. He too was offered conditional clemency by Clinton in 1999, but rejected the offer. His sister, Zenaida López, said he refused the offer because on parole, he would be in “prison outside prison.” The only other FALN member remaining in prison thereafter has subsequently been released.

As Barack Obama’s term as president winds down, the question of whether he will grant clemency to López Rivera is in the air. Given that the political prisoner’s release might very well increase Democratic Party support from the Puerto Rican communities in the United States, a decision by President Obama to pardon him could well have implications on the 2016 presidential campaign, and beyond.

To Pardon or Not to Pardon?

On the island of Puerto Rico there is unanimous support from all sectors for López Rivera’s release, from Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla to the Puerto Rican Independence Party.

Governor Padilla has visited López Rivera in prison and publicly called for his release. So have the Puerto Rican Senate and House of Representatives, the Puerto Rican Bar Association, the Puerto Rico College of Physicians and Surgeons, universities, churches and the vast majority of Puerto Rican civil society.

“Oscar represents the finest tradition of Puerto Rican history, and his people – even those who don’t support independence – are very proud of his example and outraged at the injustice of his continued incarceration, which they see as an affront,” Susler said.

For example, a recent editorial in Puerto Rico’s main daily newspaper, titled “The Ongoing Imprisonment of Oscar López Is a Betrayal of Democracy,” led with this paragraph: “At 71 years of age and having served 33 years in remote prisons, far away from his country, accused of seditious conspiracy, but never having been found guilty of shedding any blood, Oscar López Rivera is the symbol of a flagrant dishonor for his jailers and an affront to democracy that fails to respect human rights.”

Other national and international organizations calling for López Rivera’s release include the Parliamentary Confederation of the Americas, the Permanent Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean, the Coalition of Latin American and Caribbean Men and Women Religious, Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the Service Employees International Union executive bureau (SEIU), American Federation of State, Councils, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the World Federation of Trade Unions and the Region of the Americas.

The United States, while paying ample lip service to the ideals of justice and freedom, continues to hold its political prisoners longer than nearly every other country on earth.

Susler sees no legitimate reason for López Rivera’s ongoing incarceration.

“All of his co-defendants are out and living productive, law-abiding lives, fully integrated into civil society, respected by their nation,” she said. “There is no legitimate penological objective for keeping him behind bars.”

After visiting the prisoner in October 2014, Governor Padilla penned a column for Puerto Rico’s main daily newspaper, stating:

Oscar López Rivera has been in prison for 33 years. He hasn’t been accused of committing any violent act. He hasn’t been connected to any violent act. He was accused of conspiring. The line that divides “conspiring” from “thinking” is very fine. I don’t think Oscar would be a danger for the future of our country, of our community, or of our family. His sentence, far too excessive, violates the most elemental principles of humanity, sensitivity and justice. Oscar López Rivera owes no debt to society, and if he ever did, he paid it a long time ago.

A Pan-Latino Issue

Alejandro L. Molina is a member of the coordinating committee of the National Boricua Human Rights Network, and has been active in the defense of Puerto Rican political prisoners since 1976.

“This is a pan-Latino issue,” Molina told Truthout of López Rivera’s case. “Oscar’s figure has become a point of unity for Puerto Ricans. Five Latin American presidents and five Nobel Peace Prize laureates have all signed on for his release.”

Molina believes it is now more important than ever for López Rivera to be released because his freedom would be a significant step toward resolving Puerto Rico’s status in relation to the United States, and it would be a move toward US willingness to move forward with its stated mission of realigning its relationship with both Latin America and the Caribbean.

“In a practical manner, [freeing López Rivera] will send the right message about resolution of the history of the US government’s repression of dissident movements,” Molina added.

He went on to point out a case in which FBI Director Louis Freeh admitted to Rep. José Serrano (D-New York) during a House Appropriations Committee hearing that the FBI operated Cointelpro in Puerto Rico, and also confessed that the program “did do tremendous damage to many people, to the country and certainly to the FBI.”

Molina pointed to this as just one example of the harms done by the US government to Puerto Rico.

“This, according to scholars, experts and activists on the subject, included discrediting targets through psychological warfare,” Molina said. “They smeared individuals and groups using forged documents and by planting false reports in the media, harassment, wrongful imprisonment and illegal violence, including assassination.”

Molina’s conclusion is clear: The time has come for López Rivera to be freed.

“There is no good reason not to release him, as there is absolutely no valid legal, ethical, political or moral reason for the continued imprisonment,” he said. “After 34 years in prison … with no blood on his hands and his co-defendants living successful lives, Oscar López Rivera should be released with no hesitation.”

Molina has been organizing a large demonstration planned for Saturday, May 30 in New York City, where he expects thousands to rally to demand the release of López Rivera.

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