Clemency given in name of human rights

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., (U-Wire) — President Clinton’s controversial decision to grant clemency to 16 Puerto Rican prisoners this summer has left few people satisfied. Opponents of the offer have condemned it as a sign to the rest of the world that the United States is soft on terrorism, mocked it as a political ploy designed to win Puerto Rican votes in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s upcoming Senate run in New York and labeled it an affront to the integrity of the American justice system. Meanwhile, many supporters of clemency were displeased with the conditions attached to it, which they considered excessive, and angered by Hillary Clinton’s subsequent public statement that she believed the offer should be rescinded.
The issue might seem brand-new to most Americans, but the fight to free the prisoners has been going on for years. Among its supporters are 10 Nobel Peace Prize winners, former president Jimmy Carter, Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu and Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Why would so many respected human rights activists speak out on behalf of a group of people convicted of terrorist acts?
The 16 prisoners were members of two radical Puerto Rican nationalist groups, the Armed Forces of National Liberation — known by the Spanish initials FALN — and the Popular Boricua Army, commonly known as the Macheteros. FALN was responsible for 130 bombings in New York and Chicago during the 1970s and early 1980s, which resulted in the deaths of six people and the wounding of others. The Macheteros are best known for the 1983 robbery of $7.1 million from an armored Wells Fargo truck in Hartford, Conn.
None of the prisoners offered clemency, however, had been convicted of any crimes that resulted in death or injury. Rather, they had been convicted for offenses such as weapons violations, bank robbery and transportation of stolen vehicles.
In spite of this, the 16 prisoners had received sentences that ranged from 35 to 90 years, a punishment believed to be disproportionate to the crimes by human rights groups and supporters, who note that drug dealers and even murderers often receive lighter sentences. Most of the prisoners have already served 19 years of their sentences.
The strongest argument for clemency –employed by President Clinton and other human rights activists — is that 19 years in prison is enough punishment for the crimes committed. Furthermore, the prisoners have been unjustly punished for their association with radical political groups.
The clemency offer did not come without strings attached. The prisoners had to renounce violence, refrain from associating with one another outside of prison and comply with traditional parole terms.
The fact that the prisoners did not respond immediately to the offer and that many supporters denounced the conditions, asking instead for unconditional clemency, was taken as a sign by opponents that the prisoners intended to return to violent political activities once released from prison. But their initial silence can be explained easily.
The prisoners all wanted to arrive at a consensus, but were jailed in various prisons across the country and found it difficult to do so. The conditional offer carried some restrictions on their freedom and needed to be considered carefully. To chalk up the delay in the decision to a reluctance to renounce violence is an oversimplification of the matter.
The most disturbing effect of this controversy has been what it has revealed about the U.S. political climate regarding Puerto Rico.
If this issue dealt with the lives of prisoners of another ethnicity or nationality that is prominent in New York, would President Clinton then be accused of trying to win that group’s votes for his wife? Could the core of this reaction be the threat of a nonwhite group having grown in numbers and risen in power and prominence in one of the United States’ major cities?
It is a harsh accusation, but I am finding it difficult to explain why an issue that can be reduced to a simple question — were the sentences given to the prisoners appropriate for the crimes committed — has not only become a political hot potato, but become one for a politician who was not even responsible for the decision made.
Meanwhile, the larger historical framework surrounding the controversy, such as the United States’ very recent imperialist past — and some might argue present — in Puerto Rico and the treatment of Puerto Ricans as second-class citizens in the United States has been shunted aside in favor of blanket accusations about the tolerance of violence and the cat-and-mouse game of political point-scoring. What was an opportunity for Americans, particularly politicians, to educate themselves about Puerto Rico’s history and its complicated relationship with the United States, as well as about the status and treatment of Puerto Ricans in the United States today, has turned into yet another opportunity to point fingers, sling mud, and vilify a particular group of Americans.
I am not in favor of using violence to advance political causes, and neither is the vast majority of the Puerto Rican population. To characterize the support for the Puerto Rican prisoners as a defense of violence or terrorism would be a mistake. Rather, the support has emerged out of a sense that the prisoners were unjustly sentenced by a system that has often judged members of minority groups by harsher standards.
By granting the prisoners clemency, President Clinton has acknowledged that the justice system can make mistakes and has affirmed that in a true democracy, an individual cannot be sentenced for political viewpoints or unproven assumptions about his or her intentions. It remains to be seen if the treatment of the released prisoners in upcoming years will reflect this affirmation, but for now I consider it a step forward to have the lives and rights of Puerto Ricans, United States citizens for the past 80 years, considered on the same level as those of other Americans, even as the controversy that has exploded around the issue points out to me how far we all still have to go.
Kiara Alvarez Ferrer’s column originally appeared in Tuesday’s Harvard University paper, the Harvard Crimson.