1999-09-25 / Letters

Justifying Clemency

Dear Editor;

After reading the September 4 "Rockaway Short Takes" column by Howard Schwach, I am prompted to write this letter. Mr. Schwach claims in his article that he "hate(s) to use this column as a history lesson," and goes on to give his version of the plight of 16 Puerto Rican FALN members who were offered clemency by President Clinton. Mr. Schwach’s column then proceeds to list various incidents which the group was accused of, or claimed responsibility for, during the 70’s and 80’s.

What Mr. Schwach fails to inform his readers is that none of the 16 prisoners (who rightly call themselves political prisoners or prisoners of war) were ever accused of the various incidents mentioned in the column. None of these people were accused of bombings, or any actual acts of violence. The 16 prisoners were accuses of "sedition," for allegedly advocating overthrow of the United States government, and other offenses related to the interstate commerce violations related to transporting vehicles, weapons, and explosives allegedly used in other crimes. These people were sentenced to consecutive prison terms ranging from 70 to 100 years each. Crimes for which other people, not involved in politically motivated actions, would have received five or 10 year terms for the same actions. These men and women have served between 16 and 20 years of their sentences. Simply put, they were punished not for their actual "crimes," but for their political beliefs.

Mr. Schwach also writes that Clinton only offered these prisoners clemency because of Hillary Clinton’s probable run for the New York Senate. What Mr. Schwach does not tell you is that more than 100 people, including Nobel Peace Prize winners Bishop Desmond Tu Tu and former President Jimmy Carter, spearheaded the clemency move. He also fails to tell you that this clemency request has been sitting on Clinton’s desk for more than three years, long before Hillary contemplated running for the senate seat. The clemency request was pushed back several times due to the president’s numerous other political problems.

The column also claims that the releases may not take place because most of those offered the deal have refused to renounce violence. That is also untrue. These prisoners were released this past week, but the problem was not that they refused to renounce violence. The major obstacle was that the prisoners were in separate federal prisons throughout the country, some isolated in "control units" like Marion, with little or no access to each other. Communicating offers of the deal, and the prisoners’ responses were, as you could imagine, difficult to coordinate. These prisoners have all renounced violence and expressed regret at the unfortunate loss of life and injury caused by the FALN several years ago during the first push for clemency.

What Mr. Schwach also fails to give in his history lesson is the conditions that brought about the FALN’s actions. The FBI and other government agencies actively pursued political opponents of the Puerto Rican government. These actions included wire tapes, surveillance, and assassination against politicians and other people opposed to the U.S. colonization of Puerto Rico. Many people in Puerto Rico, and here in the U.S., consideer these people freedom fighters. The same name Mr. Schwach surely gave to Israeli freedom fighters in the 1940’s as groups like the "Irgun" and the "Stein Gang" bombed and assassinated the British while fighting for an Israeli statehood. Menachum Begin and Moshe Dyan were labeled "terrorists" until they gained statehood and became "statesmen." Ronald Reagan as president supported freedom fighters in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 80’s despite a congressional ban on doing so. Remember, it is the winners who write the history books, but the truth of the matter is that there are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and what really happened.


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