Today, Puerto Rican political prisoner Carlos Alberto Torres walked 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, which had taken responsibility for bombings in the Chicago area 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.
Colonized peoples of other empires, particularly in Africa, also resisted colonial control, similarly risking prison and death. In the 1950’s and 60’s, some fought in their own national territory; others, like the Algerians, took their struggle to the metropolis. This wave of anti-colonial struggle led to the formation of a body of international law, which recognized colonialism as a crime against humanity, and which also recognized the right of a people to fight to end that crime, and in the process to use any means at their disposal, including armed struggle.
Torres, who was sentenced to 78 years, invoked international law in his defense, and argued that the courts of the colonizing country may not criminalize captured anti-colonial combatants, but must turn them over to an impartial international tribunal to have their status adjudicated.
The Puerto Rican independence movement enjoys wide support internationally, as evidenced by annual resolutions for 29 years of the United Nations Decolonization Committee, 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.”
When President Clinton granted clemency to several of the other Puerto Rican political prisoners in 1999, he declared that “the prisoners were serving extremely lengthy sentences – in some cases 90 years – which were out of proportion to their crimes.” Clinton said he was moved by the support from “various members of Congress, a number of religious organizations, labor organizations, human rights groups, and Hispanic civil and community groups” along with “widespread support across the political spectrum within Puerto Rico,” as well as thousands of letters requesting their release. He also indicated that he was moved by “worldwide support on humanitarian grounds from numerous quarters,” pointing specifically to Jimmy Carter, Nobel Prize laureate South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Coretta Scott King.
Supporters from all over the United States flocked to the welcoming celebration in Chicago, which took 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.