Pardon Sought For Prisoner Who Fought For Puerto Rican Independence

Jan 15, 2017
Originally published on January 17, 2017 5:02 am

Celebrities, politicians and activists, ranging from Bernie Sanders to Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, are asking President Obama to grant clemency to a man who was part of a militant group that fought for Puerto Rican independence.

Oscar López Rivera has been in federal prison since 1981, convicted for "seditious conspiracy" to overthrow the the government of the United States, in relation to his membership in the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, or FALN. Between 1974 and 1983, the FALN claimed responsibility for more than 70 bombings in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The bombings caused millions in property damage, dozens of injuries and five deaths.

López Rivera's supporters say he is a political prisoner serving an unjust sentence. His opponents say he is an unrepentant terrorist.

Born in Puerto Rico, López Rivera moved to Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood as a teenager. He fought in Vietnam, where he earned the Bronze Star, but became disillusioned by the war and what he saw as U.S. imperialism.

After the war, López Rivera worked as a community organizer in Chicago. He also became involved in activism around the cause of Puerto Rican independence. The more he researched Puerto Rican history, the more he became convinced that Puerto Rico was a colony of the United States.

"There were resolutions of the United Nations pointing out very, very clearly that colonialism was a crime against humanity and that colonized people have the right to self-determination and to independence and to achieve it by any means necessary — including the use of force," López Rivera said in an October telephone interview from the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

At some point in the 1970s, López Rivera became a member of the clandestine FALN. The group set off bombs at government and corporate buildings, and left communiques in phone booths calling for a "free and socialist Puerto Rico." The majority of the bombs damaged property without causing injuries or deaths, but not all of them.

The FALN's most deadly attack was in January 1975 — the bombing of a crowded restaurant in New York's financial district called Fraunces Tavern. The bomb killed four and injured 60, leaving law enforcement scrambling to find the perpetrators.

"It was truly the first truly clandestine terror organization that we confronted and we had no clue as to how to approach this," said Rick Hahn, a former FBI agent assigned to the FALN case. "They were very sophisticated and we didn't realize it, and I think that was part of the problem we had in identifying FALN members — false hair items, reversible clothing ... professional make-up kits, that sort of thing."

In 1976, the FBI found an apartment linked to López Rivera containing dynamite and FALN written materials. López Rivera went into hiding, and wasn't apprehended until five years later.

By then, police had also arrested 11 other members of the group. López Rivera was tried under what was then a rarely used statute, "seditious conspiracy," which means "to oppose and attempt to overthrow by force the power of the United States government," among other crimes.

He was sentenced to 55 years, and later given an additional 15 after being convicted for a conspiracy to escape.

"They were sentenced not because of what they did but because of who they were politically," said Jan Susler, López Rivera's lawyer. "Seditious conspiracy is really a thought crime. It's agreeing to be part of challenging the United States government. And in this case it was agreeing to be part of the FALN."

In 1999, President Clinton offered to commute the sentences of most of the imprisoned FALN members — 16 in all. López Rivera was offered a deal, but he refused it because, he says, not all of his co-defendants were included.

Now, supporters like Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois are hoping Obama will use his pardon powers to let López Rivera go.

"I have never been an advocate of violence in order to meet your goals, but I also am a person who believes in justice and in fairness. He wasn't indicted for murder, " Gutierrez says. "I can only deal in the realm of what a person was indicted for and convicted and, based on that, he should be able to come home."

His supporters often compare him to Nelson Mandela, who was also involved in an armed political movement and served a lengthy prison term. But not everyone agrees.

"I would love to ask people who support his release and say, If not a terrorist, what has Oscar López done to help the Puerto Rican people?" said Joe Connor, who was 9 years old when his father — a 33-year-old banker at J.P. Morgan — was killed in the Fraunces Tavern bombing. "I'm hearing he's a freedom fighter, he's done all these things, he's not violent. But what did he do, if not be a terrorist? There's no answer to it because he was a terrorist."

Connor says López Rivera does not deserve clemency because he hasn't expressed remorse for his actions or the deaths caused by the FALN. The Fraunces Tavern bombing case has never been solved. López Rivera has denied involvement in its execution or planning.

A petition to release López Rivera has over 100,000 signatures, but organizers say they've gotten no indications from President Obama. In the official response to the petition, the White House said it "does not comment on individual pardon applications."

López Rivera had said he will no longer condone violence in the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. But he says if he walks out of prison one day, he'll walk out with his head high.

"I had made a decision ... dealing with finding meaning and purposing life, and not living a life just to exist, you know. And the struggle for me is where I found meaning in life, and I knew that that would keep me strong, and it has," he said.

If Obama leaves him in prison, López Rivera is projected for release in 2023 — when he'll be 80 years old.

This story was produced by NPR's Latino USA, who will be releasing an hour-long audio documentary about Oscar López Rivera later this month.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

President Obama has granted clemency to more than a thousand prisoners. Now in his final days in office, some activists, celebrities and politicians are asking him for one more pardon. Oscar Lopez Rivera has been in federal prison since 1981. He was convicted of trying to overthrow the U.S. government in a bid for independence for Puerto Rico. Maria Hinojosa, host of the public radio program Latino USA, has more.

MARIA HINOJOSA, BYLINE: In the mid-1970s, a mysterious series of protest bombings shook cities across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Nine buildings in Washington, New York and Chicago were bombed early today within a 45-minute span in a carefully coordinated attack.

HINOJOSA: Responsibility was claimed by a group called Las Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional, or the FALN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: By the FALN, the Puerto Rican terrorist group which claims to be pushing for the island's independence from the United States.

HINOJOSA: Between 1974 and 1983, the FALN set off over 70 such bombs. Most of the bombs only damaged property, but there were dozens of injuries and five deaths. Most of the group's members have served long prison sentences and have since been released, except for one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: Oscar Lopez Rivera has been in jail 34 years.

HINOJOSA: Public figures, from Bernie Sanders to "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, are calling for his release.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: Free Oscar Lopez Rivera.

HINOJOSA: His supporters say he's a political prisoner serving an unjust sentence. His opponents say he's an unrepentant terrorist. In the 1960s, Oscar Lopez Rivera was a young Puerto Rican living in Chicago and working as a community organizer. He fought in Vietnam where he earned a Bronze Star, but he became disillusioned by the war and what he saw as U.S. imperialism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OSCAR LOPEZ RIVERA: When I came back, there were young people that were saying, we want to be heard. We want our community to have a voice.

HINOJOSA: That's Oscar Lopez Rivera himself. He spoke with us in October from the Terre Haute federal prison in Indiana. After Vietnam, Lopez Rivera began to research Puerto Rican history. And the more he learned, the more he concluded that Puerto Rico was a colony of the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LOPEZ RIVERA: There were resolutions of the United Nations pointing out very, very clearly that colonialism was a crime against humanity and that colonialized people have the right to self-determination and to achieve it by any means necessary, including the use of force.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: When a bomb went off in a crowded financial district in the middle of the lunch hour. The explosion did a lot of damage, and it was felt on the upper floors of nearby skyscrapers.

HINOJOSA: The FALN's deadliest attack happened in January of 1975, the bombing of a crowded Wall Street restaurant called Fraunces Tavern. The bomb killed four and injured 60. In 1976, the FBI located an apartment linked to Lopez Rivera where they found dynamite and FALN documents. Lopez Rivera then went into hiding and wasn't caught by police until five years later. By then, the FBI had also caught 11 other members of the group.

They were tried under a rarely used statute, seditious conspiracy, which means to oppose and attempt to overthrow by force the power of the United States government. Lopez Rivera was sentenced to 55 years and later was given an additional 15 after being convicted for conspiracy to escape. Jan Susler is the lawyer for Lopez Rivera and his co-defendants.

JAN SUSLER: They were sentenced not because of what they did but because of who they were politically. Seditious conspiracy is really a thought crime. It's agreeing to be part of challenging the United States government. And in this case, it was agreeing to be part of the FALN.

HINOJOSA: In 1999, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of most of the imprisoned FALN members, 16 in all. Lopez Rivera was offered a deal, but he refused it because he says not all of his co-defendants were included.

Now, after almost 36 years in prison, supporters are hoping that Obama will use his pardon powers to let Lopez Rivera go. They note that he wasn't actually convicted of a crime that killed anyone, and they compare him to Nelson Mandela, who was also involved in an armed political movement and served a lengthy prison term. But not everyone agrees.

JOE CONNOR: I would love to ask people who support his release and say, if not a terrorist, what has Oscar Lopez done to help the Puerto Rican people?

HINOJOSA: Joe Connor was 9 years old when his father, a 33-year-old banker at J.P. Morgan, was killed in the Fraunces Tavern bombing.

CONNOR: I'm hearing he's a freedom fighter, he's done all these things, he's not violent, but what did he do if not be a terrorist? There's no answer to it because he was a terrorist.

HINOJOSA: Oscar Lopez Rivera was never convicted of the Fraunces Tavern bombing and he's denied involvement in its execution or planning. A petition to release him has over 100,000 signatures, but organizers say they've gotten no indications from the president.

The White House said it does not comment on individual pardon applications. Lopez Rivera has said he no longer condones violence in the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. But, he says, if he walks out of prison one day, he'll walk out with his head high.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LOPEZ RIVERA: I have made a decision, and it was a decision dealing with finding meaning and purpose in life, you know, and not living a life just to exist, you know? And the struggle for me is where I found meaning in life. And I knew that that would keep me strong. And it has.

HINOJOSA: If Obama leaves him in prison, Lopez Rivera is projected for release in 2023, when he'll be 80 years old.

For NPR News, I'm Maria Hinojosa.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria Hinojosa is the host of NPR's Latino USA, which will air an hour-long documentary on Oscar Lopez Rivera later this month. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.