WASHINGTON - Although they were not convicted of committing acts of physical harm to anyone or setting a bomb, 15 Puerto Rican political prisoners have been in U.S. jails for over 15 years. The continued imprisonment of the 15, in effect serving the equivalent of life sentences, the average sentence being 72 years, is proof of the determination of the government of the U.S. to intimidate those who struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico.
However, over the past year the national and international campaign requesting that President Clinton grant them an executive pardon has grown significantly. In the U.S. their freedom has been backed by Coretta Scott King, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the New York City Council, Congressman Ronald Dellums, Chicago Congressman Luis Gutierrez, New York Cardinal O'Connor, Rabbi Robert J. Marx, the United Church of Christ and many other members of Congress, religious leaders, and organizations.
Internationally, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, the President of the World Council of Churches, Dr. Aaron Tolen, Australian Senator Nick Sherry, Argentine Nobel Peace Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel and many others have added their voices.
In Puerto Rico the call for their release has also crossed political lines. Roberto Rexach Benitez, who was President of the Senate until last month and Zaida Hernandez Speaker of the House both conservatives and backers of statehood for Puerto Rico, have endorsed the amnesty petition. So have former governors Rafael Hernandez Colon and Roberto Sanchez Vilella, as well as Cardenal Aponte Martinez, the Puerto Rican Labor Federation (AFL-CIO) and the Manufacturers' Association.
Building on this strong base of support, Prolibertad , the organization leading the campaign for the release of the political prisoners, began its 1997 agenda with what was called an "Inter-faith Service of Healing and Reconciliation on behalf of the 15 Puerto Ricans." The service was held Jan. 11 at the All Souls Church here and included Catholics, Protestants, Pentacostals, and Muslims.
The Reverend Felix Carrion delivered a spirited sermon in which he stressed that the severity of their punishment is designed to break their spirit but that their spirit will not be broken. "They have suffered isolation and sensory depravation with the objective of sending a message to those who struggle for independence," he said.
Carrion described the condition of the political prisoners as a "sacrifice of courage and love for their country. They want Puerto Rico to be a sovereign country completely free of U.S. control."
The Puerto Rican political prisoners are 10 men and five women. Ten were born in Puerto Rico and five in the United States. Some were arrested in 1980 and others in 1983. The government accused them of being members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) and of acting and/or conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government here and in Puerto Rico.
They invoked political prisoner status and argued that the U.S. judicial system did not have jurisdiction to try them and petitioned that their cases be handed to an international, impartial court that would determine their status. They did not present a defense at their trials. They were convicted of seditious conspiracy and weapons charges.
Throughout the 98 years of U.S. domination of Puerto Rico thousands of Puerto Ricans have been jailed on similar charges. One can see the vicious nature of their sentences when compared with other political cases.
For example, the three men who were convicted of the 1976 car bombing of the Chilean ambassador to the U.S. which killed two persons ranged from 10 to 12 years. And the man convicted of the 1985 bombing of 10 abortion clinics in Washington was sentenced to six years in prison.
U.S. representatives Jose Serrano, Nydia Velazquez and Luis Gutierrez have said the prisoners "have been punished in a manner disproportional to the violations for which they were convicted, both in their sentencing and in the actual time completed so far when compared to the average sentences and time served by people convicted of murder, armed robbery, rape and kidnapping. None of the political prisoners was convicted of causing physical harm to anyone."
Between 1966 and 1985 the average sentence for murder was 22.7 years. For kidnapping it was 24 and for rape it was 13 years.
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