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Nick Estes: Leonard Peltier’s Continued Imprisonment Is an “Open Wound for Indian Country”

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Image Credit: Facebook: Carol Gokee

Calls are growing for President Biden to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier, the 77-year-old imprisoned Native American activist who has spent 46 years behind bars for a crime he says he did not commit. Amnesty International considers Peltier a political prisoner, and numerous legal observers say his 1977 conviction for alleged involvement in killing two FBI agents in a shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation was riddled with irregularities and prosecutorial misconduct. “At this point, there’s no reason other than vindictive revenge for him to be in prison,” says writer and activist Nick Estes, co-founder of the Indigenous resistance group The Red Nation. “He survived COVID, he’s in poor health, and the man deserves to be with his people,” says Estes, who calls for a full congressional investigation into the deaths of Indigenous activists on Pine Ridge Reservation, where the shootout that led to Peltier’s arrest occurred.

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

AMY GOODMAN: But, Nick Estes, before we end, I wanted to ask you about Leonard Peltier, the 77-year-old Anishinaabe Lakota Native American activist who’s been in prison for 46 years for a crime he says he did not commit. Leonard Peltier was a member of the American Indian Movement, convicted of involvement in the killing of two FBI agents in a shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1975, his arrest and trial marred by prosecutorial conduct, withheld evidence, coerced and fabricated eyewitness testimony and more. Amnesty International has long called him a political prisoner. In late April, Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz asked Attorney General Merrick Garland about calls to grant Peltier clemency.

SEN. BRIAN SCHATZ: A final question, easy one: What is your position on clemency for Leonard Peltier?

ATTORNEY GENERAL MERRICK GARLAND: So, this is a matter that goes into — applications go to the pardon attorney. Pardon attorney makes recommendations through the deputy attorney general to the president. And so I’m not going to comment on that now.

SEN. BRIAN SCHATZ: Can you comment on where we are in the process?

ATTORNEY GENERAL MERRICK GARLAND: I don’t — I assume, but don’t know, that an application has been made. I actually don’t even know whether — I mean, I’ve read about this in the press, so I don’t know anything more about it than what I’ve read in the press.

SEN. BRIAN SCHATZ: And this doesn’t cross your desk?

ATTORNEY GENERAL MERRICK GARLAND: Certainly not as an initial or even secondary matter. This goes to the pardon attorney and then the deputy attorney general. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be involved, but it certainly has not crossed my desk.

SEN. BRIAN SCHATZ: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Nick Estes, can you talk about Leonard Peltier? You recently currently co-wrote a piece for The Guardian headlined “Leonard Peltier is America’s longest-held Indigenous prisoner. He should be freed.”

NICK ESTES: Yeah. It’s important to point out, first of all, Leonard Peltier is a product of this federal Indian boarding school system. He was actually — his name was actually mentioned in the press conference yesterday on this particular initiative. And in fact, it’s also important to point out that during her tenure as a congresswoman for New Mexico, Deb Haaland was a strident advocate for Leonard Peltier’s release. And so we’re seeing a growing momentum around the question of Leonard Peltier’s continued unjust imprisonment. And the Obama administration had an opportunity to correct the course of history in releasing Leonard Peltier or granting him clemency, because that’s the only option on the table right now for his release.

But he is an elder. He’s an endeared elder to his community. Turtle Mountain Ojibwe have a plan in place so that once he is released, he has housing and he’s taken in by the community itself. You have Representative Ruth Buffalo from North Dakota, who’s up for reelection this year, who’s been a strident advocate for Leonard Peltier, who talks to Leonard Peltier on a weekly basis. And so you have this massive support from Indian Country, from elected officials to tribal governments, advocating for his release.

And if we want true justice in this country, whether it’s for the boarding school system, something that Leonard Peltier himself was fighting against as part of the American Indian Movement, then we also need to not only advocate for his release, but advocate for a full congressional investigation into the conditions that led to the shootout at the Jumping Bull property in 1975 and the multiple, the tens, you know, the dozens of deaths that have gone unsolved on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during the so-called reign of terror following the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.

And so, this is an open wound for Indian Country. It’s an open wound for the federal government. And his committee is advocating for healing. And the first step of that process is to grant him clemency. At this point, there’s no reason other than vindictive revenge for him to be in prison. He survived COVID, he’s in poor health, and the man deserves to be with his people.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t we end with Leonard Peltier’s voice? By the way, his new attorney is a former chief judge from Tennessee. But I spoke to Leonard, oh, 10 years ago — that’s this clip — on the phone in a Florida prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Leonard, this is Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! I was —

LEONARD PELTIER: Oh, hi, Amy. How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: Hi. I’m good. I was wondering if you have a message for President Obama?

LEONARD PELTIER: I just hope he can, you know, stop the wars that are going on in this world, and stop getting — killing all those people getting killed, and, you know, give the Black Hills back to my people, and turn me loose.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you share with people at the news conference and with President Obama your case for why you should be — your sentence should be commuted, why you want clemency?

LEONARD PELTIER: Well, I never got a fair trial, for one. … They wouldn’t allow me to put up a defense, and manufactured evidence, manufactured witnesses, tortured witnesses. You know, the list is — just goes on. So I think I’m a very good candidate for — after 37 years, for clemency or house arrest, at least.

AMY GOODMAN: I was speaking to Leonard Peltier at a public forum a day after a major event at the Beacon Theatre had taken place in his honor and to raise money for his support here in New York City. Well,, Nick Estes, we thank you for being with us, writer, historian, author of Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance, co-founder of The Red Nation.

You can link to all of our interviews with Leonard Peltier, as well as my questioning of President Clinton at the time, whether he would be granting clemency, and you hear Leonard Peltier himself talking about asking President Obama for that. Now the question is: What will President Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland do?

This is Democracy Now! Next up, we go to Mexico, where three journalists have been killed in the last week, bringing the toll to 11 so far this year, making Mexico the deadliest country in the world for journalists, behind Ukraine. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Vivir Quintana. The central character of the song is Mexican journalist Miguel Ángel López Velasco, who was murdered in 2011 along with his wife and son in Veracruz, Mexico.

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