Editor's note: This column was co-authored by Joe Connor.
U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez, from Illinois, took to the House floor last week not to condemn the violence that rocks Chicago on a daily basis but, instead, to manipulate the truth in the hope of gaining a second presidential clemency for the terrorist, Oscar Lopez Rivera.
Representative Gutierrez claimed, among other things, that López Rivera “was not convicted of committing a violent crime, rather he was convicted of seditious conspiracy – espousing the belief that the Puerto Rican people are capable of, entitled to, and have an inalienable right to self-determination.” The historical record tells a far different story.
From 1974 to 1983, a group claiming support for Puerto Rican independence, known as the “FALN”, committed over 100 violent crimes in the U.S. It was the most active domestic terrorist organization in American history, and a precursor to modern terror. The FALN’s deadliest attack occurred in January 1975 when their bomb tore through historic Fraunces Tavern, killing four people and injuring more than 60 others.
One of the FALN leaders, Oscar López Rivera, was captured in 1981 and has been imprisoned for the past 35 years. In recent years, the push for President Obama to pardon him has become a cause célèbre. Oscar López Rivera’s incarceration became national news again in May 2016 when Bernie Sanders, while campaigning in San Juan, called López Rivera a “political prisoner,” a “respected community activist,” and compared him to Nelson Mandela. “I say to President Obama: Let him out…Oscar López Rivera’s incarceration violates the principles of justice, democracy, and respect for human rights.”
Arguably, rationale may exist for commuting López Rivera’s sentence (pardon, a different form of executive clemency that is an expression of the President’s forgiveness, would be entirely inappropriate) on humanitarian grounds, taking into account age, length of time imprisoned, and his service to our country in Vietnam. However, that is not the narrative being used by López Rivera’s advocates, who have turned his imprisonment into a misguided political cause threatening to establish a dangerous precedent in the ongoing war against terrorists.
Should President Obama choose to grant clemency, it must be done for the appropriate reasons. We as a society should neither forget nor re-write history, or grant López Rivera a mythical and undeserved heroic status. With this in mind, we note the following key considerations regarding Oscar López Rivera:
1. Oscar López Rivera is not a political prisoner, he is not innocent of the commission of violent acts, and he is not guilty merely by association.
López Rivera was a FALN leader who organized and personally led numerous FALN bombings, armed assaults, and hostage takings both in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. He also was a prime recruiter of FALN members, a crucial trainer in bombing, sabotage and other techniques of guerilla warfare, and the mastermind of the establishment of a series of FALN safehouses and bomb factories. López-Rivera and his colleague, Carlos Torres, plotted to free captured FALN comrades, including by drastic measures such as kidnapping and using President Reagan’s son Ron as a bargaining chip. When finally arrested in 1981, the FBI found in López-Rivera’s residence a large quantity of dynamite, blasting caps, and other bomb components. At his sentencing in 1983, Judge Thomas McMillen called López “an incorrigible law violator” and an “unrehabilitated revolutionary,” and sentenced him to 55 years in prison.
The seditious conspiracy charge, based on his actively planning and working with others “to forcibly destroy or overthrow the U.S. government or its property,” has received much unwarranted criticism over the years by López Rivera supporters. That prosecutors did not sufficiently link López Rivera to particular violent acts that the FALN took full responsibility for is understandable. The FALN members operated in a clandestine structure that made it extremely difficult to identify individual people committing specific crimes. The fact remains that López Rivera was a leader of the group that committed and took full responsibility for those crimes. Direct involvement in violent acts is not the sole prerequisite for being liable for their consequences – think of Osama bin Laden and the attacks on 9/11/01. Each FALN member understood the group’s goal, which was to change American government policy through use of fear, terror, and violence.
2. Oscar López Rivera’s sentence is not unduly harsh, particularly given his activities as a prisoner.
In December 1999, the House Committee on Government Reform, concluded that the sentences imposed on López Rivera and the other FALN prisoners were fair. Among the reasons they cited was analysis from the U.S. Sentencing Commission indicating that “the [current at the time] federal sentencing guidelines generally would call for sentences as long as or longer than those actually imposed if the defendants had been sentenced under current law.”
Moreover, a significant portion of López Rivera’s overall prison sentence arose from his activities after imprisonment, which included his masterminding in 1985 a violent plot to spring him from Leavenworth involving the use of automatic weapons, grenades, and a helicopter. López Rivera was separately tried, convicted, and sentenced to an additional 15 years in prison for his part in this conspiracy.
It should also be remembered that López Rivera Lopez and the other FALN members were essentially given life sentences during their trials in Chicago. The economics of law enforcement would not allow for them to be tried again in New York only to receive duplicative sentences.
3. The FALN alleged independence cause masked its true objective - to impose a Cuban-style Marxist state in Puerto Rico.
The FALN was spawned by Cuba during the Cold War at a time when it and the Soviet Union backed “national liberation” movements throughout the Americas, closely partnering with Marxist groups such as the Weather Underground. Significantly, the FALN chose to ignore that there was at all times a clear, democratic path to independence; namely four, public referendums, held in Puerto Rico since 1967. In none of them has the choice of independence garnered more than a small percentage of the popular vote.
4. The comparison of Oscar López Rivera to Nelson Mandela is false and misleading.
There is a world of difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist, and Sanders’ comparison of López Rivera to Mandela and his fight against apartheid is insulting. Mandela was not entirely non-violent in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, but he understood the immorality of terrorism as well as its practical limits. As Mandela said in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, “Terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it, undermining any public support it might otherwise garner.”
5. Remember Oscar López Rivera was offered clemency, but refused it.
In 1999, President Clinton made the controversial decision to offer clemency to 12 imprisoned FALN members. One of the two FALN members who rejected the clemency terms was Oscar López Rivera. His choice to remain in prison was the act of a leader – the captain going down with the ship. Offering López Rivera clemency for a second time would be an extraordinary act with an unclear rationale.
6. Oscar López Rivera has never accepted responsibility for his actions or expressed remorse.
López Rivera has consistently refused to accept responsibility for his role in the violence perpetrated by the FALN or acknowledge the pain and suffering of the FALN’s victims and their families. According to FALN victims attending, his January 2011 parole hearing, López Rivera showed that he still had no perspective on what he’d been involved in or the pain and suffering the FALN had caused, as well as a complete inability to feel sadness or remorse for what happened. In his 2013 biography, Between Torture and Resistance, López Rivera whitewashes his terrorist activities and paints himself as a victim. Nor has he ever cooperated with authorities to help solve crimes such as the Fraunces Tavern bombing.
The fundamental rationale for clemency for an individual such as Lopez Rivera should be based on the notions of justice, mercy, and contrition. We ask that President Obama, if considering the appropriate balance between these factors, take into account the immeasurable suffering that López Rivera has inflicted, his refusal to accept responsibility or express remorse for his acts, and the additional distress and harm that will be caused if the stated arguments for granting a second clemency are mistaken or disingenuous.