During the holidays, the atmosphere of goodwill and mercy traditionally extends all the way to the nation’s highest leaders, with presidents typically pardoning more prisoners than any other time in the year. On Friday, actors, musicians and activists are uniting to renew calls for clemency for one of America’s most well-known and longest-incarcerated prisoners: Leonard Peltier. The Native American activist and former member of the American Indian Movement was convicted of abetting the killing of two FBI agents during a shootout on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. Peltier has long maintained his innocence. Amnesty International considers him a political prisoner who was not granted a fair trial. We air a never-before-broadcast video of Peltier from an interview by German journalist Claus Biegert. [includes rush transcript]
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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During the holidays, the atmosphere of goodwill and mercy traditionally extends all the way to the nation’s highest leaders, with presidents typically pardoning more prisoners than any other time of the year. On Friday, actors, musicians and activists are uniting to renew calls for clemency for one of America’s most well-known and longest-incarcerated prisoners, Leonard Peltier.
The Native American activist and former member of the American Indian Movement was convicted of killing two FBI agents during a shootout on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. The shootout occurred two years after the American Indian Movement occupied the village of Wounded Knee for 71 days. The occupation of Wounded Knee is considered the beginning of what Oglala people refer to as the "Reign of Terror." During that time, some 64 local Native Americans were murdered. Most of them had ties to AIM. Their deaths went uninvestigated by the FBI.
Leonard Peltier has long maintained his innocence. Amnesty International considers him a political prisoner who was not granted a fair trial. Notable figures, such as Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, also say he was wrongly imprisoned. On Friday, singers Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger and others will host a "Bring Leonard Peltier Home in 2012 Concert" at the Beacon Theatre in New York City to raise awareness of Peltier’s 37-year ordeal and plea for executive clemency from President Obama.
AMY GOODMAN: Back in 2000, many of Peltier’s supporters had high hopes that outgoing President Bill Clinton would pardon Peltier before the end of his second term. It was on Election Day, November 7, 2000, that I got a chance to question President Clinton. He was calling into radio stations around New York, urging people to get out the vote for Hillary Clinton, who was running for Senate at the time, and for Al Gore, who was running for president. And I asked him if he had any intention of issuing a pardon for Leonard Peltier.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your position on granting Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist, executive clemency?
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Well, I don’t—I don’t have a position I can announce yet. I think if—I believe there is a new application for him in there. And when I have time, after the election is over, I’m going to review all the remaining executive clemency applications and, you know, see what the merits dictate. I will try to do what I think the right thing to do is based on the evidence. And I’ve never had the time actually to sit down myself and review that case. I know it’s very important to a lot of people, maybe on both sides of the issue. And I think I owe it to them to give it an honest look-see. So, part of my responsibilities in the last 10 weeks of office after the election will be to review the requests for pardons and executive clemencies and give them a fair hearing. And I pledge to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: And you will give an answer in his case?
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Oh, yeah, I’ll decide one way or the other.
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, President Clinton never did pardon Peltier. Instead, he granted a pardon to fugitive billionaire Marc Rich, who had been living in Switzerland since a 1983 indictment on charges of wire fraud, racketeering, tax evasion and trading with Iran in violation of a U.S. embargo. Rich’s ex-wife, Denise Rich, was a major donor to the campaigns of both President Clinton and his wife, then-New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Peltier said in response, quote, "We can see who is granted clemency and why. The big donors to the president’s campaign were able to buy justice, something we just couldn’t afford. Meanwhile, many political prisoners continue to languish unjustly, proof that this nation’s talk about reconciliation is nothing but empty rhetoric," said Leonard Peltier.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Today we air video of Peltier, never before broadcast, from an interview by German journalist Claus Biegert. In this clip, Peltier recites his poetry.
LEONARD PELTIER: I would like to read a couple of poems out of my book for you.
"In the Shadowed Night."
in the shadowed night
I become spirit.
The walls, the bars, the gratings dissolve into light
and I unloosen my soul
and fly through the inner darkness of my being.
I become transparent,
a bright shadow,
a bird of dreams singing from the tree of life.
"The Knife of My Mind"
I have no presence.
I have only a past
and, perhaps, a future.
The presence has been taken from me.
I’m left in an empty space whose darkness
I carve at with the knife of my mind.
I must carve myself anew
out of the razor-wire nothingness.
I will know the ecstasy
and the pain
I will be ordinary again.
that terrifying condition,
where all is possibility,
where the presence exists and must be faced.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Leonard Peltier currently remains incarcerated at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida. His next scheduled parole hearing is in July 2024. Barring appeals or parole, Peltier’s projected release date is October 11th, 2040, when he will be over 95 years old. It remains yet to be seen if President Obama will do what Clinton did not: use his second term to pardon Leonard Peltier. Last month, ProPublica reported that Obama has granted clemency at a lower rate than any president in modern history.
AMY GOODMAN: When we come back, we’ll speak with the acclaimed actor, narrator, longtime friend and advocate of Leonard Peltier, Peter Coyote. Stay with us.