By Mark Wachtler
November 13, 2013. San Juan. (ONN) Jailed Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera will see his 32nd year behind bars this month. At the same time, his supporters will be holding demonstrations asking for his release. Rivera was one of the many alleged Chicago FALN members convicted of sedition in 1981 – conspiracy to overthrow the US government. He’s currently serving a 70-year prison sentence.
Image courtesy of Decolonize Puerto Rico blog
Charges and conviction
In 1898, the United States conquered Puerto Rico and declared the island a colony of America. During the 1930’s, rebellion and the quest for independence had reached a crisis point. The US federal government seemingly declared war on anyone who voiced support for Puerto Rican independence and actually passed legislation called the Gag Law which made it a crime to even speak of the subject. The law was used to jail one of the movement’s earliest leaders for ten years - Pedro Albizu Campos.
In 1943, Oscar Lopez Rivera moved to the US at the age of nine with his family. They settled in Chicago and when he turned 18, Rivera was drafted and sent to Vietnam where he earned the Bronze Star. When he returned from the war in 1967, he found his neighborhood overrun with drugs, gangs, violence and poverty. At that point, he became a community activist where he helped open community centers, schools and other education programs.
Rivera mounted a successful grassroots effort to force schools to hire Hispanic teachers so the Hispanic students had role models they could identify with and who understood their plight and their language. He also lead campaigns to end discrimination against Latinos in hiring by Chicago’s utility companies. Rivera helped open a half-way house for recently-released, drug-addicted prison inmates to help them turn their lives around. And he launched an education program for Spanish-speaking prisoners in Illinois’ prison system.
Conspiracy to overthrow the US government
During the 1970’s, the Puerto Rican independence movement was taking a radical turn and certain break-away groups began incorporating violence. One of those organizations was Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional. The authorities called them FALN and having grown up in Chicago during the 1970’s, this author can attest that they were in the local news on an almost daily basis.
From their large Puerto Rican community in Chicago, members of the FALN were accused of carrying out over 100 bombings and murdering five people in their fight for national independence. For his part, Oscar Lopez Rivera has never admitted to being a member of FALN, having ever taken part in any of the violence or having anything to do with the bombing deaths. He’s always insisted his campaign is a peaceful one. And his decades of activism on the streets of Chicago would seem to give credence to that claim.
By 1980, authorities had given up trying to pin the bombing deaths on any specific individuals and decided to take out FALN by simply arresting all its leaders and trying them for whatever smaller charges they could. On top of that, federal prosecutors actually charged and successfully convicted them of sedition – conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States.
Upon his arrest and trial, Rivera declared that he was a political prisoner and he was being tried for political reasons. He refused to actively participate in his own trial. The group was eventually convicted on various charges of sedition, bomb making, firearms violations, and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. Oscar Lopez Rivera was sentenced to 70 years in federal prison while some of the defendants were given sentences as long as 90 years.
World’s longest-jailed political prisoner
Rivera’s story doesn’t end there. For the first seven years of his incarceration beginning in 1981, he and the rest of the convicted Puerto Rican nationalists were shown to have been subjected to abusive and criminal treatment by authorities. The treatment was so bad and so widespread and targeted upon the FALN members that the United Nations, Amnesty International and a US House Subcommittee all agreed and asked US officials to look into their treatment and the documented human rights violations.
In 1988, Rivera was charged and convicted of conspiracy to escape from prison and sentenced to an additional 15 years in federal prison. As the abuses continued for more than a decade at Marion, Illinois and Florence, Colorado federal prisons, he was finally transferred to the Terre Haute, Indiana prison in 1998 where conditions are reportedly a little better.
President Bill Clinton offered him partial clemency at one point during his administration, an offer Clinton was widely criticized for by Republicans and the law enforcement community. But Rivera refused the offer, always declaring his innocence and saying that the conditions of his parole would only change the setting and he would still be a US political prisoner. While it’s virtually impossible to verify due to the isolation of various regions of the Earth, Oscar Lopez Rivera is credited with being the longest-held political prisoner in the world.
In 2006, the United Nations asked the United States to release Rivera and the rest of his fellow Puerto Rican nationalists. The Bush administration refused. Investigations have since shown that the sentences Rivera and his fellow defendants received were 20-times longer than the sentences other individuals received upon conviction for the same or similar crimes. His supporters also repeatedly plea for his release by reminding people that Rivera has spent more than half of his time in prison being locked in solitary confinement.
Support for Rivera’s release grows
In February 2011, Rivera and his attorney requested parole but were denied. Since then, the movement demanding his release has grown exponentially. In May of this year, public demonstrations were held in cities across Puerto Rico. Cheered on by tens of thousands of supporters, some of Puerto Rico’s most famous citizens took part by being publicly locked in mock jail cells in solidarity with Oscar Lopez Rivera.
Participants in May’s demonstrations calling on President Obama to release Rivera included actors like Angela Meyer, singers like Ricky Martin, and elected officials that included the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s Senator and the island’s former Governor. Major League baseball player Carlos Delgado also took part.
Building on the success and publicity of May’s demonstrations, Rivera’s supporters have organized another demonstration culminating in a peaceful march on November 23rd. Already, organizers are distributing ‘!Oscar Libre!’ wristbands to help spread the word in the two weeks leading up to the event.
A Decolonize Puerto Rico blog promoting the coming demonstration writes, ‘On Saturday November 23, 2013, we will have a peaceful protest in Puerto Rico for the liberation of our patriot and political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera. The protest is sponsored by the group 32 x Oscar and The Pro Human Rights Committee of Puerto Rico. We will march from the US Courthouse in Puerto Rico at 1 PM to the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Hato Rey. Let’s show the world that we do believe in human rights, justice for all and democracy. To do the contrary would be to become ourselves part of the problem.’
For more information on the November 23rd demonstration to free Oscar Lopez Rivera, visit the Decolonize Puerto Rico blog (scroll down for the English translations). Some of the above detailed history of Rivera and the fight for Puerto Rican independence is compliments of Wikipedia.
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