Pardon Sought For Oscar López Rivera, Prisoner Who Fought For Puerto Rican Independence There are calls for President Obama to pardon Oscar López Rivera, who was jailed in connection to a series of bombings by a radical nationalist group. But to some, he's still an unrepentant terrorist.
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Pardon Sought For Prisoner Who Fought For Puerto Rican Independence

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Pardon Sought For Prisoner Who Fought For Puerto Rican Independence

Pardon Sought For Prisoner Who Fought For Puerto Rican Independence

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

President Obama has granted clemency to more than a thousand prisoners. Now in his final days in office, some activists, celebrities and politicians are asking him for one more pardon. Oscar Lopez Rivera has been in federal prison since 1981. He was convicted of trying to overthrow the U.S. government in a bid for independence for Puerto Rico. Maria Hinojosa, host of the public radio program Latino USA, has more.

MARIA HINOJOSA, BYLINE: In the mid-1970s, a mysterious series of protest bombings shook cities across the country.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Nine buildings in Washington, New York and Chicago were bombed early today within a 45-minute span in a carefully coordinated attack.

HINOJOSA: Responsibility was claimed by a group called Las Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional, or the FALN.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: By the FALN, the Puerto Rican terrorist group which claims to be pushing for the island's independence from the United States.

HINOJOSA: Between 1974 and 1983, the FALN set off over 70 such bombs. Most of the bombs only damaged property, but there were dozens of injuries and five deaths. Most of the group's members have served long prison sentences and have since been released, except for one.

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BERNIE SANDERS: Oscar Lopez Rivera has been in jail 34 years.

HINOJOSA: Public figures, from Bernie Sanders to "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, are calling for his release.

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SANDERS: Free Oscar Lopez Rivera.

HINOJOSA: His supporters say he's a political prisoner serving an unjust sentence. His opponents say he's an unrepentant terrorist. In the 1960s, Oscar Lopez Rivera was a young Puerto Rican living in Chicago and working as a community organizer. He fought in Vietnam where he earned a Bronze Star, but he became disillusioned by the war and what he saw as U.S. imperialism.

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OSCAR LOPEZ RIVERA: When I came back, there were young people that were saying, we want to be heard. We want our community to have a voice.

HINOJOSA: That's Oscar Lopez Rivera himself. He spoke with us in October from the Terre Haute federal prison in Indiana. After Vietnam, Lopez Rivera began to research Puerto Rican history. And the more he learned, the more he concluded that Puerto Rico was a colony of the United States.

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LOPEZ RIVERA: There were resolutions of the United Nations pointing out very, very clearly that colonialism was a crime against humanity and that colonialized people have the right to self-determination and to achieve it by any means necessary, including the use of force.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: When a bomb went off in a crowded financial district in the middle of the lunch hour. The explosion did a lot of damage, and it was felt on the upper floors of nearby skyscrapers.

HINOJOSA: The FALN's deadliest attack happened in January of 1975, the bombing of a crowded Wall Street restaurant called Fraunces Tavern. The bomb killed four and injured 60. In 1976, the FBI located an apartment linked to Lopez Rivera where they found dynamite and FALN documents. Lopez Rivera then went into hiding and wasn't caught by police until five years later. By then, the FBI had also caught 11 other members of the group.

They were tried under a rarely used statute, seditious conspiracy, which means to oppose and attempt to overthrow by force the power of the United States government. Lopez Rivera was sentenced to 55 years and later was given an additional 15 after being convicted for conspiracy to escape. Jan Susler is the lawyer for Lopez Rivera and his co-defendants.

JAN SUSLER: They were sentenced not because of what they did but because of who they were politically. Seditious conspiracy is really a thought crime. It's agreeing to be part of challenging the United States government. And in this case, it was agreeing to be part of the FALN.

HINOJOSA: In 1999, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of most of the imprisoned FALN members, 16 in all. Lopez Rivera was offered a deal, but he refused it because he says not all of his co-defendants were included.

Now, after almost 36 years in prison, supporters are hoping that Obama will use his pardon powers to let Lopez Rivera go. They note that he wasn't actually convicted of a crime that killed anyone, and they compare him to Nelson Mandela, who was also involved in an armed political movement and served a lengthy prison term. But not everyone agrees.

JOE CONNOR: I would love to ask people who support his release and say, if not a terrorist, what has Oscar Lopez done to help the Puerto Rican people?

HINOJOSA: Joe Connor was 9 years old when his father, a 33-year-old banker at J.P. Morgan, was killed in the Fraunces Tavern bombing.

CONNOR: I'm hearing he's a freedom fighter, he's done all these things, he's not violent, but what did he do if not be a terrorist? There's no answer to it because he was a terrorist.

HINOJOSA: Oscar Lopez Rivera was never convicted of the Fraunces Tavern bombing and he's denied involvement in its execution or planning. A petition to release him has over 100,000 signatures, but organizers say they've gotten no indications from the president.

The White House said it does not comment on individual pardon applications. Lopez Rivera has said he no longer condones violence in the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. But, he says, if he walks out of prison one day, he'll walk out with his head high.

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LOPEZ RIVERA: I have made a decision, and it was a decision dealing with finding meaning and purpose in life, you know, and not living a life just to exist, you know? And the struggle for me is where I found meaning in life. And I knew that that would keep me strong. And it has.

HINOJOSA: If Obama leaves him in prison, Lopez Rivera is projected for release in 2023, when he'll be 80 years old.

For NPR News, I'm Maria Hinojosa.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria Hinojosa is the host of NPR's Latino USA, which will air an hour-long documentary on Oscar Lopez Rivera later this month.

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