SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Hundreds of activists including pop star Ricky Martin called Wednesday for the release of a 70-year-old Puerto Rican nationalist who was a member of a militant group that sought independence for the U.S. territory decades ago.
Oscar Lopez was sentenced to 55 years in prison after a 1981 conviction on federal charges including seditious conspiracy, use of force to commit robbery and interstate transportation of firearms. He received an additional 15 years in 1988 after being convicted of conspiring to escape from a prison in Kansas.
Dozens of Puerto Ricans entered fake prison cells set up in several cities across the U.S. territory to raise awareness about Lopez's case and mark the 32 years he has spent in prison.
"He didn't commit any crime that is deserving of so much time in prison," said Gilberto Acosta, a government worker. "They should have released him a long time ago."
Lopez was offered clemency by President Bill Clinton in 1999, but didn't sign the deal in part because it did not include two comrades who have since been released.
In 2011, the U.S. Parole Commission denied a request for early release, but both Lopez and attorney Jan Susler have filed petitions seeking executive clemency.
"It's the only remedy that we have," Susler told The Associated Press. "The man is 70 years old. He's a model prisoner. There is no reason to keep him in prison."
Lopez is currently being held at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, awaiting a release date of June 2023.
Eduardo Bhatia, president of the island's Senate, said he sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking that Lopez's sentence be commuted.
"He is a 70-year-old decorated war veteran who was not convicted of killing or hurting anyone," Bhatia wrote. "Your presidency has been characterized by your strong defense of human rights. I appeal to your compassion and humbly ask for your clemency."
Lopez was a member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, which claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings at public and commercial buildings during the 1970s and '80s in U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago and Washington. The most notorious attack killed four people and injured more than 60 at New York's landmark Fraunces Tavern in 1975. Lopez was not convicted of any role in that attack.
His daughter, Clarisa Lopez, told the AP that he called her exactly at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday to mark the day and time of his imprisonment.
She was among those who spent several minutes inside a fake prison cell during Wednesday's 24-hour demonstration.
"I'm happy that an educated society has united (over this)," she said. "My father is a political prisoner to hundreds of people. For me, Oscar Lopez is simply my father."
Not everyone in Puerto Rico views him as a political prisoner.
Miriam Ramirez, former vice president of the island's pro-statehood New Progressive Party, said she doesn't believe that label applies to Lopez, but she still joined the call for his release.
"It should be done for humanitarian reasons," she said, adding that she feels Lopez has served enough time in jail.