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Will Obama Grant Leonard Peltier His Last Chance at Freedom?

Executive clemency from President Obama may be Leonard Peltier's last chance to get out of prison alive.

An activist displays a sign for the release of Leonard Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement, in San Francisco, California, on October 27, 2010. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

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Leonard Peltier is perhaps the most famous political prisoner in the US today. In 1977, Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement, was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for allegedly shooting two FBI agents in 1975 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. However, both his indictment and conviction are the subject of intense controversy. Amnesty International even listed his case under its “Unfair Trials” category in their Annual Report: USA 2010.

Jack Healey has been fighting alongside Peltier for decades. Once called “Mr. Human Rights” by the US News and World Report, he was the executive director of Amnesty International for a dozen years. He now heads the Washington, DC-based Human Rights Action Center, and is leading the campaign to free Leonard Peltier.

Healey and others who have been advocating for decades for Peltier’s release are now focusing on the fact that Peltier, who is 72 years old and has been in prison more than four decades, likely does not have long to live and deserves to go home.

“He is diabetic, has heart problems, has suffered a stroke, and he’s been in 41 years,” Healey told Truthout. “The food there, along with living there, deteriorates you. He has an inner spirit and spunk and has thus managed to keep his spirits up, but this is likely the last chance for him to be released.”

The “last chance” Healey references is his campaign’s push for Peltier to be granted executive clemency by outgoing President Barack Obama.

“I’ve been doing human rights work for a long time,” Healey said. “If Obama were to do this, it would be a signal to Native populations all across North, South and Central America, and it’d be a great way for him to go out, by sending this important message.”

Jack Magee, Peltier’s spokesperson, emphasized that, after four decades, it is simply time for Peltier to be released. (Peltier himself was not allowed to speak to the media at the time of this writing.)

“We just want him to be able to go home,” Magee told Truthout. “He [Peltier] wants to be able to live the time he has left in peace.”

With Donald Trump soon to take the reins of the country, and considering Peltier’s age and health issues, it is clearly a do-or-die moment for the campaign working to free him.

Will Obama Be Different?

Towards the end of Bill Clinton’s administration in 2000, many believed Clinton might grant Peltier clemency.

However, there was opposition: Roughly 500 FBI agents and their families demonstrated outside the White House, and pressure was applied to FBI director Louis Freeh by the agents and their families, as they believed Peltier was responsible for the deaths of the two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation conflict. In the end, Clinton did not deny Peltier clemency — but he didn’t grant it, either. Peltier remained behind bars.

George W. Bush denied Peltier’s petition for clemency at the end of his second term.

Healy and his Human Rights Action Center have been working tirelessly towards obtaining clemency for Peltier for decades. Recent efforts have included producing numerous “I Will” video pieces, featuring several high-profile individuals asking for clemency on behalf of Peltier.

In this clemency campaign video, friends, activists and public figures urge President Obama to “right this wrong.”

The list of people and organizations who support Peltier and his clemency request is massive and impressive. It includes the Dalai Lama, the late Nelson Mandela, the late Mother Theresa, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, Ward Churchill, Angela Davis, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, the National Lawyers Guild and the Parliaments of the EU, Belgium and Italy. Stars like Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, the Indigo Girls, the late Peter Matthiessen and Robert Redford are on board, as are civil rights leaders like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and organizations like Amnesty International, Center for Constitutional Rights and the World Council of Churches.

Healey, who formerly headed the US Peace Corps, told Truthout that it only makes sense for Obama to grant Peltier a compassionate plea for executive clemency due to his ongoing health issues, and the fact that he has now accumulated more than 20 years’ time for good behavior.

Magee pointed out the urgency of Peltier being granted clemency.

“Leonard is 72 years old, and has all kinds of health problems now and only recently got to go to a hospital for the first time in years,” he said. “He’s got an active aortic aneurism and he’s afraid, because if it bursts when he’s in prison, there’s no way he’ll survive.”

Peltier’s additional health issues include heart disease and diabetes, among others.

“We just want him to have health care,” Magee said.

Healey’s Human Rights Action Center, which also played a role in freeing Nelson Mandela, is joined by the National Congress of American Indians, which represents more than 500 tribes across the US, in supporting Peltier and pushing for Obama to grant him clemency.

“Leonard knows what we’re doing to get him out, and he likes it,” Healey told Truthout, adding that the Obama administration may be more receptive to a clemency petition than Bush and Clinton were. Healey cites the fact that Obama has sent members of his administration to meetings with Native American tribal leaders, and points to other ways the administration has been more open to Native issues than other recent administrations. (This is not to say that Obama has radically shifted US policies or practices regarding Indigenous issues; for example, he has been criticized for not doing more about the Dakota Access pipeline.)

During Obama’s eighth White House Tribal Nations Conference, a yearly summit meeting of Native American leaders that Obama began, he received praise for delivering on his pledge to work more closely with Native Americans. Obama announced settlements with 17 tribes totaling nearly half a billion dollars for federal mismanagement of their lands and funds. The Obama administration also settled another lawsuit from 2009, in which $3.4 billion was paid in compensation for federal mishandling of hundreds of thousands of land trust accounts.

“There’s a nice legacy there,” Healey said, noting that if Obama grants Peltier clemency, he’ll be remembered for it. “It may be small, but it is nonetheless important. So we have somewhat of a framework for having this [executive clemency] happen.”

“A True Survivor”

Healey has built an incredible campaign for Peltier over the years, and he hopes it will result in freedom.

“I feel that in the buildup towards what we hope is Leonard being granted clemency, we didn’t want to just come to the end and come to the White House in desperation,” he added. “I want to show that the American people have supported Leonard over the years.”

For Human Rights Day, which was December 10, Healey’s campaign requested that all 567 tribes within the United States drum in support of Peltier and his release, and most of them did.

Healey believes it is important that people know Peltier is a veteran, very down to earth, and a strong person, and needs support due to the fact that a generation of his supporters are now dying off.

“Many of his supporters from the Clinton period have died, like Peter Matthiessen — they are just gone,” he explained.

The Conference of American Indians have endorsed Healey’s campaign to free Peltier, and Healey is now working on having the Catholic Conference of Bishops provide a letter of support for the clemency plea.

“We’ve had no money to do this and have made the videos and done the lobbying without anything other than affection and passion and love,” Healey said of the campaign. “We all like and love Leonard, and get all this done on nearly nothing, so we are pleased that we are realistic and have a powerful campaign coming, we think the Indians are going to continue to drum and the kids are going to write about Leonard, so we hope it works.”

Magee also sees this as a critically important time for Peltier to come home, as he watches the leadership of both young people and elders at Standing Rock from afar.

“Leonard is very supportive of what happened at Standing Rock,” Magee said. “For him, it’s the new generation doing what he tried to do. In the 1970s after Bobby and Jack Kennedy were killed, and MLK, the American Indian Movement stood up and said enough was enough. So he’s proud of the people at Standing Rock.”

Healey feels it is now imperative that, after withstanding decades of maximum-security prisons and long periods of solitary confinement, Peltier be freed.

“Peltier is a true survivor,” Healey said.

It is highly likely Peltier will die in jail if he is not granted clemency, given an incoming Trump administration. Obama has a crucial chance to support his survival. Over the next month, we will see whether or not he takes it.

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