Hundreds of Puerto Ricans rallied this week to call for the United States to release the Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar López Rivera. Wednesday marked his 32nd year in prison. In 1981, López was convicted on federal charges, including seditious conspiracy — conspiring to oppose U.S. authority over Puerto Rico by force. He was accused of being a member of the FALN, the Armed Forces of National Liberation, which claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings to call attention to the colonial case of Puerto Rico. In 1999 President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 members of the FALN, but López refused to accept the deal because it did not include two fellow activists who have since been released. In a rare video recording from prison, López said the charges against him were strictly political. Calls are increasing for López to be released from Nobel Peace Laureate South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Eduardo Bhatia, president of the Puerto Rican Senate. To talk more about the case, we speak with Luis Nieves Falcón, a renowned Puerto Rican lawyer, sociologist, and educator. He is the editor of the new book of López’s letters and reflections called, "Oscar López Rivera: Between Torture and Resistance." We also talk with Matt Meyer, long-time member of the War Resisters League.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: In the next segment, we’ll be going to the clinic of George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, four years after he was murdered. But right now we turn to another issue and another anniversary. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, hundreds of Puerto Ricans rallied this week to call for the United States to release Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar López Rivera. Wednesday marked his 32nd year in prison. In 1981, López was convicted on federal charges, including seditious conspiracy—conspiring to oppose U.S. authority over Puerto Rico by force. He was accused of being a member of the FALN, the Armed Forces of National Liberation, which claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings to call attention to the colonial case of Puerto Rico.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 members of the FALN, but López refused to accept the deal because it did not include two fellow activists who have since been released. In a rare video recording from prison, Oscar López Rivera said the charges against him were strictly political.
OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: I think the fact that I was charged with seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States speaks for itself. But the charge in reference to Puerto Ricans has always been used for political purposes. It goes back to 1936. The first time that a group of Puerto Ricans was put in prison was by using the seditious conspiracy charge. And this has always been a strictly political charge used against Puerto Ricans.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Calls are increasing for Oscar López Rivera to be released. Eduardo Bhatia, president of the Puerto Rican Senate, recently sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking that López’s sentence be commuted. In 2011, Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel of Argentina, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa wrote to Obama after López was denied parole. This is Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
DESMOND TUTU: After more than 30 years, Oscar López Rivera is in prison for the crime of seditious conspiracy, conspiring to free his people from the shackles of imperial injustice. Now is the time for his immediate and unconditional release. In working for reconciliation and peace, we once again feel compelled to repeat the biblical call of Isaiah to set free those who are bound. May God bless all of us in our efforts for justice with peace.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. At Wednesday’s protest in Puerto Rico, activists set up fake prison cells in several cities across the island to raise awareness about López’s case. Former Major League Baseball all-star Carlos Delgado took part in the protest. In an interview with El Nuevo Día, he was asked what crime López had committed.
CARLOS DELGADO: [translated] Loving and supporting his homeland. I send solidarity to Oscar López. No one knows exactly when he will be able to leave the mock prison. Obviously, when you enter that room, and you see everything is the same color, and you know that they have taken your freedom away, it’s sad, it’s hard. I can only imagine what has happened to Oscar for the last 32 years. I imagine that he has had an incredible amount of mental strength. I think we are here to support him and to send him good energy.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the case of Oscar López Rivera, we were recently joined by two guests here in our studio. Luis Nieves Falcón is a renowned Puerto Rican lawyer, sociologist, educator, professor emeritus of University of Puerto Rico, founder of its Department of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, editor of the just-released book of Oscar’s letters and reflections called Oscar López Rivera: Between Torture and Resistance.
We were also joined by the man who wrote the introduction to the book, Matt Meyer. He’s a longtime leader of the War Resisters League.
And we began by asking Luis Nieves Falcón to talk about Oscar López Rivera’s background.
LUIS NIEVES FALCÓN: He was a Vietnam veteran. He was given the Bronze Medal because his effort to save some of his colleagues in actions. And in coming to after the war, in coming to Chicago, he was amazed by the inequalities that existed in the city, not only with regard to the Puerto Rican group, but to other ethnic nationalities there. And he did active work in trying to get better health services, educational services, job services. And he found that it was not really possible really to get the structural changes that were necessary to raise the levels of all ethnic people in Chicago.
And he joined an organization that thought that the socioeconomic conditions of the Puerto Ricans in the United States could only really improve if the political status of the homeland, the island, was resolved, which, in a sense, is that there must be a change in the colonial status of the island that naturally could be reflected on the conditions of the Puerto Ricans in the United States. That activism brought him in conflict with established authorities, which, in a way, saw that active work as a threat, not to the—to the power or the power elites that were ruling now, down there. And he was—he was targeted for arrested. He went underground for some times. And then, finally, he was arrested.
And he was accused of seditious conspiracy. He was not accused of killing anybody. He was not accused of placing any bombs. He was not accused of maiming anybody. He was accused of being associated with an organization that favor—that favor all means at their disposal to get rid of colonialism in Puerto Rico. As it is—and as probably you know, the law of seditious conspiracy originated during the Civil War in the United States. It was applied during the Civil War to the Southerners that wanted to secede from the union. After the Civil War, all those persons that were convicted under the institute of the seditious conspiracy were freed. And the law was not applied anymore in the history of the United States until 1937. In 1937, seditious conspiracy emerges against Pedro Albizu Campos, a foremost leader for the independence of Puerto Rico. And since then, U.S.A. has systematically applied the law of seditious conspiracy to Puerto Ricans struggling—struggling for independence.
He was arrested when he was 38 years old. He has been 32 years in jail. He is 70 at the moment. And authorities want to keep him in jail for 30 more years. So, it’s not only punitive, but when you compare, for example, the sentence that’s imposed on him with those imposed to other—to other convictions, like sex rapists, murderers, first crime, all those—all those convictions were much, much less than the one imposed on Oscar López Rivera. So, obviously, there is a disproportion in the sentencing, and then the posterior treatment that he gets in incarceration are related to these political beliefs.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Dr. Nieves Falcón, when you say he was—he was charged with being part of an organization, that was the FALN, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional—
LUIS NIEVES FALCÓN: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that many of their members were also jailed and subsequently were pardoned by President Clinton. How was it that Oscar López Rivera ended up not being part of that original pardon of President Clinton, which is actually one of several that U.S. presidents have done, because Jimmy Carter pardoned the nationalists, as did Truman in the ’50s pardon some nationalists.
LUIS NIEVES FALCÓN: Well, in 1999, President Clinton pardoned 13 political—Puerto Rican political prisoners. And Oscar was among those that were pardoned. But he refused, because two of his comrades that were accused at the same time were excluded from the pardon. And he felt—he felt, according to his principles, that he should not be free while some of his comrades were left behind. The two—the two people that were left outside the Clinton pardon, José Alberto Torres and Haydée Beltrán, are already free.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Oscar spent—Oscar López spent 12 years in isolation?
LUIS NIEVES FALCÓN: When I went to visit Oscar, Oscar was submitted to this treatment that I say that has three prongs, three legs, no? Isolation, deprivation and strip search. Isolation, he was in a cell, six by nine, all painted white, illuminated 24 hours a day. And he was—every hour on the hour, they entered the cell to see if he was there, if he had not escaped. So, he was not only sleep deprivation, movement deprivation, because the space where he was, he’s only provided for a bed, which was a concrete plank, a basin and a toilet. And all he could do was sit on the bed, because there was no bed. So, to that space deprivation, to that call deprivation, there’s also a communication deprivation, because all the guards were forbidden for—no one could speak to him, not with—not a single word.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask Matt about the—the foreword to this book is by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and he says in here—I just wanted to read a couple of sentences that he says. "Puerto Rico remains one of the leading territories under direct colonial control and, as such, is denied these basic human rights of self-expression." It goes on to talk about some of the battles that Puerto Ricans have been able to win around Vieques and other political prisoners. But he says, "But one prisoner remains, now a vivid reminder of the ongoing inequality that colonialsim and empire building inevitably bring forth. After more than 30 years, Oscar López Rivera is in prison for the crime of seditious conspiracy, conspiring to free his people from the shackles of imperial justice." Can you talk about the campaign that you’ve been trying to lead in terms of trying to reverse this latest decision of the parole board?
MATT MEYER: Yeah, I mean, one of the wonders of the campaign is that, in Puerto Rico, it has, as Dr. Falcón has discussed, gone across the political spectrum, across ideological lines, across status lines. So, pro-statehooders, pro-commonwealth, people who are or have been fairly apolitical, really across the board are saying, "Oscar is our hero. Oscar is our native son. Oscar needs to come home." And that was done through basic, simple knocking on doors, neighborhood to neighborhood, grassroots. His own home town, San Sebastián, the mayor of that town is a pro-statehooder, aligned more closely with the Republican Party here in the States. And because of the grassroots work they’ve done in Puerto Rico, he has come out as one of the leading critics of Oscar’s continuing incarceration.
But on the international level, we’ve tried to do the same thing. And while it’s door to door and person to person, it also has attracted, as you say, some fairly significant leaders of international human rights movements. When Archbishop Tutu learned of the case, he immediately took it up as a cause of concern, and that’s why he graciously granted the foreword to the book that you just read from. You know, Archbishop Tutu kept speaking about the fact that in his days, under apartheid, looking at the colonial and the neocolonial, the racist conditions that his people suffered under, when he learned about, when he traveled through Puerto Rico, he saw reflections of the exact same thing. So, in fact, Amy mentioned at the start that there were recently three new video messages—Archbishop Tutu, Mairead Corrigan Maguire and former East Timorese President José Ramos-Horta—who were video participants in a conference in December. But, in fact, just last week, Jody Williams, another Nobel Peace laureate, signed onto the campaign. So it’s a growing outcry in the international human rights community to say this policy must be reversed, this pardon must take place.
AMY GOODMAN: And where is Oscar López Rivera right now? Where is he imprisoned?
MATT MEYER: Oscar is in Terre Haute now.
AMY GOODMAN: Terre Haute.
MATT MEYER: And he is not in the kind of egregious conditions that Dr. Falcón spoke about. But still, any time in prison when all of his co-defendants are out, all of them leading productive, nonviolent, you know, community-based lives back at home, it’s a continuing injustice.
AMY GOODMAN: Matt Meyer of the War Resisters League. He wrote the introduction to the new book, Oscar López Rivera: Between Torture and Resistance. Our other guest, Puerto Rican attorney Luis Nieves Falcón, edited the book.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we go to the clinic that George Tiller ran until four years ago today, when he was murdered. Stay with us.