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FBI Asks Clinton Not to Release Leonard Peltier, As His Supporters Fight for Executive Clemency

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FBI Director Louis Freeh yesterday urged President Clinton not to commute the life sentence of Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist who has served almost 24 years in prison. Peltier was convicted of killing two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1975, a crime he has always said he did not commit. In a show of support for Freeh, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Henry Hyde, a Republican of Illinois, has released a letter to Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno also opposing clemency. [includes rush transcript]

In an exclusive interview this November with WBAI and Democracy Now! President Clinton spoke publicly for the first time about the Peltier case. When asked whether he would grant executive clemency to Peltier, Clinton responded that he would give the case an “honest look-see” and would make a final decision before he left office.

Clinton now has only a few weeks left to act. This Sunday, thousands of people plan to rally in front of the United Nations in New York in support of clemency.


  • Jennifer Harbury, Human rights lawyer and attorney for Leonard Peltier.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a big weekend for rallies. In fact, on Sunday in New York, another major vigil and walk for another man in prison, and he is Leonard Peltier. Leonard Peltier, who has been in prison for more than twenty-four years, he is now at Leavenworth prison.

Yesterday in the late afternoon, FBI Director Louis Freeh sent a letter to President Clinton urging that the President not commute the life prison term of the American Indian activist serving a life term for killing two FBI agents. The vigil on Sunday — and it may be targeted to come at the time of this vigil, where many people are expected from around the country — in fact, many from the reservation that Leonard Peltier was on, the Pine Ridge Reservation — that’s calling for the granting of executive clemency for Leonard Peltier.

I had a chance to ask President Clinton on Election Day about whether he would be granting executive clemency. This is Leonard Peltier on what Clinton had to say.

LEONARD PELTIER: My name is Leonard Peltier. I’m a Lakota and Chippewa Native American, and I am currently serving two life sentences for the deaths of two FBI agents.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you kill the FBI agents?


AMY GOODMAN: President Clinton, what is your position on granting Leonard Peltier executive clemency?

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Part of my responsibilities in the last ten 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.

LEONARD PELTIER: I’ve got my dignity, my self-respect. And I’m going to carry that with me, even if I die here.

AMY GOODMAN: Leonard Peltier and what President Clinton had to say about his case. The key time is between Election Day and Inauguration Day.

We’re now joined on the telephone by Jennifer Harbury, who is well known on many issues. She is also one of the lead attorneys for Leonard Peltier.

Before we talk about another case that you’re deeply involved with, which we’re going to go to after the break, the Organization of American States handing down a key ruling yesterday in the death of your husband, Guatemalan Mayan “Comandante Everardo,” Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, let’s talk about Leonard Peltier.

What is the significance of the FBI director’s call on President Clinton not to grant Leonard Peltier executive clemency?

JENNIFER HARBURY: In fact, that’s a very typical gesture from all of the different officials in the FBI at any high levels, not just today, but for the last twenty-five years. I personally find it quite shocking, given the extreme levels of misconduct on the part of FBI officials, which occurred throughout the trial of Mr. Peltier, throughout the investigation, and even after his incarceration. And by that, I’m specifically referring to FBI officials terrorizing a witness into signing a false statement saying that she was his girlfriend and witnessed the killings, when in fact she never met Mr. Peltier and later told the judge that. She simply didn’t want to have her children taken away, which is what the FBI was threatening to do. I’m also specifically referring to the FBI decision to withhold the key findings of their ballistic expert, which actually said this bullet did not come from Mr. Peltier’s weapon. They withheld that from the defense and instead testified that the bullet probably did come from his gun. Those are just two examples of some of the gross misconduct which occurred in the de facto lynching of Mr. Peltier, who has never to this day received a fair trial.

AMY GOODMAN: What word —

JENNIFER HARBURY: In fact, the United States attorney to this day admits that no one knows who fired those fatal shots.

AMY GOODMAN: What word do you have on which way President Clinton is going at this point? There must be a lot of internal goings-on at the White House now. And why do you think Freeh is coming out at this point? In addition, we understand that Henry Hyde, Congress member, is circulating a Dear Colleague letter calling on people — Congress members to sign a letter saying don’t free Leonard Peltier.

JENNIFER HARBURY: Yes, well, Mr. Hyde has always opposed clemency in the case of Mr. Peltier. I don’t think he’s fully informed of the facts. Unfortunately, I think that that Dear Colleague letter will not go very far, since many people on the Hill are very apprised of the case.

I know, for example, on the — Coretta Scott King, Amnesty International, Desmond Tutu, Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, the National Conference of Churches, almost every major human rights organization and/or leader in the world has called for Mr. Peltier’s release, not as the FBI suggests because they’re knee-jerk liberals, but because they are in fact — they in fact are very, very aware of the record and the misconduct which occurred.

I think that Mr. Clinton is very seriously considering the petition. He and his staff, of course, have not been able to comment on which way they’re leaning. I think at this point they’re simply reading the materials very carefully. But I think the FBI is concerned, because there’s been a major groundswell across the United States and in fact around the world, as Mr. Clinton’s last days in office are approaching, to ask him to settle this case for once and for all and to undo the gross misjustice — injustices which have occurred for the last twenty-five years towards Mr. Peltier. And this would be a major gesture towards reconciliation between the United States government and Native peoples.

It would be a major gesture towards trying to undo some of the damage inflicted by the COINTELPRO era of the FBI. The FBI, of course, does not want the entire Reign of Terror issue to be looked at again with closer scrutiny, as Mr. Peltier’s case becomes reexamined. That is one of the ugliest chapters of civil rights history in recent American history. Some sixty-four Native peoples were murdered, all of them AIM supports and sympathizers of AIM on Pine Ridge Reservation in a three-year period of time by vigilantes closely allied with and supported by the FBI.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Harbury, we’re going to talk more about this case in the coming days with the major event in New York this weekend and also this critical period of the consideration of executive clemency. But we have to break right now. When we come back, we want to look at another case, which is the case that was just decided by the Organization of American States.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue with attorney Jennifer Harbury. The Organization of American States issued a harsh ruling yesterday against the Guatemalan military. In a case that has been fought now for eight years, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that the Guatemalan army is guilty of murder, torture and other crimes in the case of Mayan rebel Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, who disappeared in 1992. He was the husband of Jennifer Harbury. According to the ruling, the Guatemalan military had killed Bamaca and obstructed justice after the killing.

Jennifer Harbury, can you talk about the significance of this ruling?

JENNIFER HARBURY: Yeah, we’re — all of us who have ever lost family members throughout Latin America, whether it be under Pinochet in the stadium or in the dirty wars in Argentina or in Salvador or Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala, what all of us have always been told is your husband, your son, your daughter, your loved one, your sister, your brother, that person was into something political. Perhaps they were a dissident. Perhaps they were a church leader, you know, organizing the people. Perhaps they were a union organizer. Perhaps they were leaders of the groups for the disappeared, in fact, or they were doing civil rights work or anything progressive or dissident in any nature.

What the army would always say is your husband or your family member was into something [inaudible], with the heavy insinuation that they were a Communists, that they were insurgents, that they were rebels, and therefore deserved what had happened to them, that they deserved to be kidnapped, that they deserved to be tortured in secret cells, that they deserved to be flung from helicopters, stuffed down wells, dismembered or scattered across unmarked graves, that that was legal and justified in the context of a counterinsurgency movement by the army and that the army could in fact substitute itself for the courts of law. That’s what all of the military dictatorships have been saying for all of these years. That’s what the CIA, in fact, has been saying for all of these years.

And what the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Organization of American States has just said is, no, it is never legal. It is never justified. There are no exceptions. Every single one of those hundreds of thousands of murders — 200,000 of them alone in Guatemala — has been and always will be completely illegal.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the United States’s involvement? Where did the Organization of American States stand on that? You have the Guatemalan military, a White House panel finding in 1996 that the CIA knowingly hired a number of Guatemalan military officials suspected of political assassinations, ex-judicial executions, kidnapping and torture, and used them as paid informants. The panel also concluded that one of those paid officers, a colonel known as Julio Roberto Alpirez, took part in the interrogation and torture of your husband, Everardo.

JENNIFER HARBURY: That is correct. The case that was before the court is the case against the Guatemalan government, meaning specifically the Guatemalan military. We cannot bring the United States into the Inter-American system until I’ve exhausted legal remedies within the United States. And I still have a major civil rights case pending against close to thirty defendants from the CIA, from the White House, and from the State Department for their participation and collaboration in my husband’s torture, murder, and the cover-up that ensued, including the blocking of his rescue. We in fact could have saved his life if they had timely released the information they possessed, including specific bulletins that he was still alive, as were 300 other prisoners of war. As soon as that case is resolved, if resolved positively, we will not need to bring it to the Inter-American system. If resolved negatively, then I can bring the United States forward, as well.

Meanwhile, this ruling has very, very heavy implications, legal implications for routine practices of the CIA. They’ve always maintained that they have the right to collaborate and participate in certain “dirty practices,” because it’s a necessary part of information gathering, intelligence work, and “national security work,” meaning assassinations. What this case says is that that can never be legal and that none of those practices can ever be legal.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a lawsuit against the FBI and the CIA still pending here in this country?

JENNIFER HARBURY: It’s against individual officials in the CIA, the State Department and the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: Charging them with?

JENNIFER HARBURY: In — it’s the equivalent of a police brutality case. It’s a constitutional violations claim, a series of those claims together with the Federal Tort Claims Act. They basically divide into two categories. One is participation, collaboration and conspiracy to commit kidnapping, torture, and assassination, you know, which boils down to, you know, a police brutality case under the Constitution. They would be due process claims. The other category would be the equivalent of assault and battery under civil law, as well as intentional infliction of emotional harm and blocking of rescue attempts by myself, including fraud, as well, for leaving me out there thirty-two days on a hunger strike when they already knew that he was dead.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jennifer Harbury, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Jennifer Harbury, attorney for — well, the widow of Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, the murder of which the decision came down yesterday in the Organization of American States, Inter-American court case, also the attorney for Leonard Peltier.

If people want to get in touch with the Leonard Peltier defense committee, where can they call?

JENNIFER HARBURY: The best line would be the main office in Kansas, which is (785) 842-5774.

AMY GOODMAN: One more time?

JENNIFER HARBURY: (785) 842-5774, and if people would call the White House comments line every single day, Mr. Peltier’s life hangs in the balance. He’s been in there twenty-five years. His health is seriously deteriorating. If Mr. Bush is going to be president, this is our last chance before Inauguration Day to undo some of the damage that’s been inflicted on Native people throughout the hemisphere by the United States government since its inception. We can’t bring back any of the dead. None of the 200,000 in Guatemala will ever come back alive, including Everardo. But Leonard Peltier is alive. And we can do something about the harms that our government has inflicted. The White House comments line is (202) 456-1111. Please call every single day and tell President Clinton that you are with him in any stand against the FBI to undo some of the injustices which have occurred and that you want Mr. Peltier released immediately. Please help us. It’s one of our last chances to undo one of the most serious human rights abuses in the country in many, many years.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jennifer Harbury, I want to thank you for being with us. I know you will be in New York this weekend —


AMY GOODMAN: — for the Leonard Peltier march on Sunday that will ultimately be a major rally at the — outside of the United Nations on Sunday at 2:00 in the afternoon, and we’ll be reporting on that.

JENNIFER HARBURY: And I want to thank you, Amy, for being one of the few bright beacons of both free speech and free flow of information about world realities and civil rights realities, in specific, in this country. Thank you so much for all of the work you do.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thanks, Jennifer.

JENNIFER HARBURY: We’d be lost without you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you very much for being there, as well.

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