Today, Puerto Rican political prisoner Carlos Alberto Torres will walk out of prison after 30 years behind bars. He was convicted of seditious conspiracy – conspiring to use force against the lawful authority of the United States over Puerto Rico. Torres was punished for being a member of an armed clandestine organization called the FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation), which had taken responsibility for bombings that resulted in no deaths or injuries. He was not accused of taking part in these bombings, only of being a member of the FALN.
In 1898, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States by Spain as war bounty in the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War. Nevertheless, the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico and has occupied it ever since. Puerto Ricans have always resisted foreign occupation of their land and called for independence.
The Puerto Rican independence movement enjoys wide support internationally. Every year for 29 years the United Nations Decolonization Committee has passed a resolution calling for independence. There have been similar declarations of the Non-Aligned Movement, and recent submissions to the United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review.
All of these expressions call on the U.S. government to release Puerto Rican political prisoners who have served 30 and 29 years of their disproportionately long 70 year sentences in U.S. prisons for cases related to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. They include Torres (who was sentenced to 30 years) and Oscar López Rivera (sentenced to 29 years), as well as Avelino González Claudio, who was recently sentenced to seven years. None of these men was convicted for harming anyone or taking a life.
Torres’ attorney, National Lawyers Guild member Jan Susler of Chicago, notes, “Carlos is being released from prison due to the unflagging support of the Puerto Rican independence movement and others who work for human rights. The more than 10,000 letters of support from the U.S., Puerto Rico, Mexico and other countries sent a strong message to the Parole Commission.”
Supporters from all over the United States will flock to the welcoming celebration in Chicago, which will take place in the heart of the Puerto Rican community. Tomorrow, Torres, his family and attorney will fly to Puerto Rico, where thousands will greet him with a concert of the nation’s finest musicians and artists.
Yet there is a damper on the celebration, as Torres leaves behind his compatriot Oscar López, a 67 year old decorated Viet Nam veteran. López did not accept the terms of President Clinton’s 1999 clemency offer, which would have required him to serve an additional 10 years in prison with good conduct. Though he declined the offer, López has now served the additional 10 years in prison with good conduct. Had he accepted the deal, he would have been released last September. Those who did accept are living successful lives, fully integrated into civil society. There is no reason to treat him differently.
While we celebrate this remarkable day in the life of Torres and the movement for Puerto Rican independence, let us commit ourselves to continue to struggle until Oscar López Rivera and Avelino González Claudio, as well as all political prisoners in U.S. prisons, also walk free.
MARJORIE COHN, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, is immediate past president of the National Lawyers Guild, deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, and the U.S. representative to the executive council of the American Association of Jurists.