SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Car horns rang out across Puerto Rico and people celebrated in the streets Tuesday after President Barack Obama announced he had commuted the prison sentence of 74-year-old nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera.
Many Puerto Ricans have long demanded his release, and some wept with emotion upon hearing the news while others headed to all-night parties announced on social media.
His lawyer, Jan Susler, told The Associated Press that she broke the news of the release to Lopez, who was sentenced to 55 years in prison for his role in a violent struggle for independence for the U.S. island territory.
"He's very, very grateful," she said in a phone interview. "One of the things he said was: 'Tomorrow's my daughter's birthday. What an amazing present for her.'"
Lopez belonged to the ultranationalist Armed Forces of National Liberation, which claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings at public and commercial buildings during the 1970s and '80s in New York, Chicago, Washington and other U.S. cities. He was convicted on one count of seditious conspiracy, and he was later convicted of conspiring to escape from prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. He is currently being held at Terre Haute, Indiana.
The group's most notorious bombing occurred at New York's landmark Fraunces Tavern in 1975 that killed four people and injured more than 60. Lopez was not convicted of any role in that attack, but some still hold him responsible because of his ties to the ultranationalist group.
"I'm willing to forgive, but he never once said he was sorry, showed no remorse at all," said Mary Connor Tully, whose husband, Frank Connor, was killed in the bombing. "He's an old man and he'll get to live his life free, and hopefully he can live with the sins he committed, and that he'll answer one day to a higher power than us for what he did."
Lopez, whose release also was opposed by several groups including a national police organization, is now scheduled to be freed May 17.
"He wants to live in Puerto Rico, and people there really want him to come home," Susler said.
Lopez was offered clemency by President Bill Clinton in 1999, but he rejected the offer because it excluded two comrades who have since been released. Then in 2011, the U.S. Parole Commission denied his request for an early release.
Among those who publicly supported Lopez's release was Pope Francis, "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, former President Jimmy Carter and several legislators, including U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois.
"Sobbing with gratitude here in London," Miranda tweeted Tuesday, adding that he will have a show for Lopez in Chicago. "It'll be my honor to play Hamilton the night he goes."
Alejandro Molina, coordinator of the National Boricua Human Rights Network, joined about 100 other people in a spontaneous celebration Tuesday at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago, which was founded by Lopez.
"It's wonderful news," he said.
Upon his return to Puerto Rico, Lopez plans to spend time with his daughter and granddaughter and wants to establish a think tank that will work on such problems as climate change, the economy and the island's political status.
"He wants to be actively involved in solving the problems of Puerto Rican society," said Molina, who accompanied Lopez's daughter on a Christmas prison visit
Susler said the U.S. pardon attorney told her that sometimes inmates first transition to a halfway house after being released. But eventually, Lopez will return to Puerto Rico, she said.
"He's a man who lives with a lot of hope," she said. "That's how I think you survive 35 years in prison. He's never had false hope or illusory hope. He thought he was in prison for a higher cause for his people, and that's something that's very life-giving."
Associated Press writer Ben Fox in Miami and Deepti Hajela in New York City contributed to this report.