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Luis Gutiérrez: Puerto Rican prisoner Oscar López Rivera to be freed

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Longtime Puerto Rican prisoner Oscar López Rivera — known as a political prisoner to his supporters and as a convicted member of a murderous terrorist organization to his foes — is being freed under a clemency granted by President Barack Obama, according to one key lawmaker

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat who has campaigned for Lopez’s freedom including in a stop in Orlando last year, announced Tuesday that he had been informed Obama is granting clemency. López is from Chicago.

The White House has not yet announced that Obama has granted clemency for López.

López has been in federal prison for more than 35 years after being convicted in 1981 for his participation in the Puerto Rican independence group FALN. He was convicted of seditious conspiracy, use of force to commit robbery, interstate transportation of firearms and ammunition to aid in the commission of a felony, and interstate transportation of stolen vehicles. He was sentenced to 55 years.

López turned 74 last week.

His cause has been taken up by a wide range of politicians who, like Gutiérrez, believe he is being held as a political prisoner of Puerto Rican independence, sentenced and serving far longer than would be justified by the actual crimes for which he was convicted. His has been an issue for much of the Puerto Rican community in particular; many of them consider him a freedom fighter, not a terrorist.

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat of Puerto Rican heritage, is among those who have been urging Obama to grant him clemency or an unconditional pardon.

“We want to congratulate Oscar Lopez Rivera on his new freedom coming up in May and appreciate his long-term fight for Puerto Ricans,” Soto said. “We also want to thank President Barack Obama for doing the right thing.”

Another Orlando supporter, Phillip Arroyo, a Democratic activist who petitioned the White House on behalf of his group, Coalition for Puerto Rico Justice, for Lopez’s release, called it a very emotional day.

“We did it!” Arroyo said. “Oscar will go down in history as Puerto Rico’s version of Nelson Mandela. As a Puerto Rican who worked at the White House, I am so proud of President Obama who has once again showed his compassion and his courage to stand up for justice. Oscar will soon be back in our homeland of Puerto Rico, where he rightfully belongs.”

More than 108,000 people who signed an online petition calling for López’s release.

Gutiérrez office announced late Tuesday afternoon that it had received word from the White House that López will be released unconditionally after 120 more days in prison. The clemency not only releases him but wipes clean his record of convictions.

“I am overjoyed and overwhelmed with emotion,” Gutiérrez declared in a statement. “Oscar is a friend, a mentor, and family to me and he and his brother José have been friends and mentors for my entire adult life. There were times when hope was hard to find but my wife Soraida always had faith that this day would come.  Now it is clear that Oscar will rejoin his family and be able to walk free among the Puerto Rican people.”

López is a cause célèbre in the Puerto Rican diaspora in Florida and throughout the United States, and for residents of Puerto Rico.

His support extends from the capitol of Puerto Rico, where Gov. Alejandro García Padilla; Gov.-elect Ricardo Rossell, and Secretary of Justice César Miranda all have written and called for his release; to the halls of Congress, where López has near-universal support among the Hispanic Caucus members.

The support goes well beyond the Puerto Rican community to include Jimmy Carter, who was president during most of López’s alleged crimes, and who last month called for Obama to release him; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who made a similar call; the New York City Council, which pass a resolution in 2015 calling for his immediately release; the late Coretta Scott King, who backed his release before her 2006 death; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the presidents of the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and SEIU; the United Church of Christ; the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda; the Latino Victory Project, the ACLU, and several international human rights organizations, though not including Amnesty International.

A decorated Vietnam War Army veteran who lived much of his pre-prison life in Chicago, López was an acknowledged member and alleged leader in the 1970s and early ’80s of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or the FALN. The armed, Marxist-leaning, Puerto Rican nationalist group was linked to a number of bombings, shootings, robberies and other violent acts in Puerto Rico and stateside, acts which federal authorities labeled as a terrorist. The 1975 bombing of the Fraunces Tavern in New York City, claimed by FALN as a retaliatory act, killed four people and injured 60. There were other deaths and injuries in other incidents.

While he was not convicted of any charges directly linking him to any of the FALN’s more notorious attacks, prosecutors and the FBI had characterized Lopez as a leader, trainer and bomb maker for the group.

He also was convicted in 1988 of conspiring with others for a prison break, allegedly to be done with smuggled-in weapons, grenades and explosives. The escape attempt never went forward. He got another 15 years.

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected]

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