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Convicted Puerto Rican nationalists focus of pardon drive

January 18, 1997 GMT

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Confined to a federal prison in Oklahoma, Elizam Escobar considers himself a freedom fighter whose dream of an independent Puerto Rico has faded but not disappeared.

In the 1980s, he and 14 other Puerto Ricans were convicted of conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government in their fight for independence. Now they are the focus of a pardon drive that has gained thousands of supporters.

Prosecutors brand the prisoners terrorists and oppose pardons. Supporters say pardons would close a painful chapter in Puerto Rican history. The prisoners say they never should have been jailed in the first place.

``A political prisoner is defined as being in prison for his anti-colonial ideas,″ Escobar, 48, said in a telephone interview. ``Ours is a historical struggle. ... We have been compared to Northern Ireland and called the Palestinians of the Caribbean.″

Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States after the Spanish-American War in 1898. It is a U.S. commonwealth that enjoys local autonomy but has no vote in Congress or for president.

Prosecutors say 13 of the prisoners belonged to the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a terrorist group responsible for more than 100 bombings in the United States that killed six people and wounded dozens in the 1970s and early ’80s.

The 13 didn’t defend themselves at trial, saying they didn’t recognize U.S. legal jurisdiction over them. Several, however, have admitted to FALN involvement.

The other two prisoners were convicted in a $7.5 million armored truck robbery in West Hartford, Conn. The 1983 robbery was to finance the separatist group Los Macheteros, or ``Cane Cutters,″ which attacked U.S. government installations in Puerto Rico.

In recent months, Puerto Rican and U.S. church leaders, politicians and citizens have sent 75,000 signatures to the White House to demand the prisoners’ freedom. Retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King and three members of Congress are among them.

There is precedent for pardons. In 1977 and 1979, President Carter pardoned four Puerto Rican nationalists who were convicted in a 1954 shooting attack on Congress that wounded five lawmakers. Carter also pardoned a fifth nationalist who was convicted of plotting to kill President Truman in 1950.

Luis Nieves Falcon, a sociologist and Puerto Rico coordinator for the campaign, says he and other independence activists hope for a pardon decision well before 1998, the 100th anniversary of U.S. ties. They plan full-page ads in U.S. newspapers and church appeals to the White House.

A prominent critic of the drive is Carlos Romero Barcelo, Puerto Rico’s non-voting delegate to Congress. A supporter of statehood for Puerto Rico, Romero Barcelo insists the prisoners serve time for their crimes.

A 1993 pardon petition filed with the U.S. Justice Department says the 15 prisoners were singled out for harsh treatment, receiving an average sentence of 70 years. Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Puerto Rican-born lawmaker, says the average federal sentence for murder at that time was 10 years.

The petition also claims the nationalists were mistreated in prison. One, Alejandrina Torres, spent two months in solitary confinement, monitored 24 hours a day. Torres, now 57, claims prison guards physically abused her.

Most of the prisoners attended U.S. colleges and did community service work before joining FALN.

Oscar Lopez Rivera received a bronze medal for valor in Vietnam. Escobar, a painter whose works have been shown throughout the United States, taught art at New York City’s Museo del Barrio.

``They are good people,″ said Rafael Cancel Miranda, who was pardoned by Carter after serving 25 years in prison for the attack on Congress. ``They did whatever they did, they got involved in whatever they got involved in, because they care.″

The U.S. attorney’s offices in Chicago and Hartford, where many of the prisoners were tried, have filed motions opposing pardons. Officials at both offices said they were barred from commenting.

But federal prosecutors who tried the cases note that no prisoners have cooperated.

``The real problem with any plea for clemency that I would look for would be any sort of remorse. To me, that means sitting down and cooperating fully,″ said Charlie Rose, a former federal prosecutor who investigated FALN activity in New York.

He cited the 1975 bombing of New York’s historic Fraunces Tavern that killed four people and wounded 60. It was one of 49 bombings attributed to the FALN in New York City between 1974 and 1977.

No one has been convicted in the tavern bombing.

The prisoners won’t renounce violence or accept other conditions for their release. ``We cannot renounce the right to defend ourselves,″ Escobar said.

But Escobar _ whose release date from El Reno Federal Correctional Institution is 2014 _ strongly suggested that the time for armed struggle has passed. He said he wants to join the Puerto Rico-based National Hostosiano Congress, which is waging a peaceful independence campaign.

The pardon petition, too, says the prisoners are eager to return to civilian life and pose no threat to society.

``All movements make errors,″ Escobar said. ``One can say that certain actions were wrong. ... But regarding my participation in the fight ... and all that has happened, I have nothing to regret.″