ORLANDO, Fla.-Supporters of Oscar Lopez Rivera have kicked off a petition drive asking President Barack Obama to grant clemency to the Puerto Rican independentista, who has served more than 31 years in federal custody, making him the longest-held political prisoner in the island's history. Lopez will turn 70 on Jan. 6.
Supporters of Lopez, including his niece, spoke at an event organized by the Orlando chapter of the National Boricua Human Rights Network on Nov. 19 and held at the Asociacion Borinqueña in east Orlando. The NBHRN works for the decontamination of former U.S. Navy facilities on the island of Vieques, the release of all Puerto Rican political prisoners, and an end to political repression and criminalization of progressive forces in the Puerto Rican community.
"This is a humanitarian effort on behalf of those in the international community who would like to see Oscar free once and for all," said Zoraida Rios-Andio, vice chair of the Central Florida chapter of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights
"It's embarrassing for our country [for the president] to go speak about political prisoners [in other countries] and yet keep in prison someone who has contributed immensely to the Puerto Rican community, not only in Chicago but across the U.S., and who inspires all of us," said New York State Assemblyman Jose Rivera, a Democrat who represents parts of the Bronx.
So far, Lopez's supporters have collected almost 100,000 signatures. The deadline to sign the petition and send it to the NBHRN is Dec. 15.
*Lopez's supporters hope a delegation can meet with the Obama administration sometime in January to make the case for early release for someone whom many Puerto Ricans consider an inspirational figure for his struggle and sacrifice on behalf of independence for their homeland.
The petition to President Obama points out that "three U.S. presidents have exercised the constitutional power of pardon to commute the sentences of men and women in U.S. prisons for Puerto Rican independence: President Truman in 1952, President Carter in 1979, and President Clinton in 1999. We are mindful that all of Mr. Lopez' co-defendants have been released, and most of them live in Puerto Rico, where they are well respected, productive members of our civil society. ...
"We are always hopeful when we hear expressions by your administration that political prisoners in other countries should be released, as we eagerly await application of this policy to Oscar Lopez Rivera's case right here at home."
At his first federal parole hearing in 2011, Lopez was denied the right to call witnesses and to have legal observers and family members present, while the government called 11 witnesses who sought to implicate Lopez in acts in which he was not involved. His next parole hearing will not be until 2026, when he will be 83.
"On behalf of our family we really want to thank everybody that has shown solidarity in the release of our uncle, Oscar Lopez," said his niece, Lourdes Lugo Lopez.
"It's been 31 years of not having him for celebrations as well as to mourn," said Lugo, noting that many of Lopez's relatives, including his mother and sister, have died during his lengthy incarceration.
Lugo urged Lopez's supporters to contact the White House asking for clemency for Lopez. "Call the president and say, 'I heard about Oscar. Why is he in prison?'" she said.
Lopez's release enjoys wide support in Puerto Rico, not only from pro-independence forces, but from the Senate and House, the Bar Association, former governors, unions, religious denominations, and community activists, among other sectors. Lopez also has growing support among sectors of the Latino and Puerto Rican communities in the U.S.
Lopez, born in San Sebastian, P.R., moved to Chicago when he was a teenager. In the 1960s he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star. After he returned home, he became a community activist, working on issues of poverty, discrimination, education, and police brutality in Chicago's Puerto Rican neighborhoods.
According to the NBHRN, Lopez "was arrested in 1981, accused of being a member of a clandestine force seeking independence for Puerto Rico, and sentenced to 55 years for seditious conspiracy. He was not accused or convicted of causing harm or taking a life.
"In 1988, as the result of a government-made conspiracy to escape, he was given an additional 15 years."
"From 1986 to 1998, he was held in the most super maximum security prisons in the federal prison system," says the NBHRN, "in conditions not unlike those at Guantanamo under which 'enemy combatants,' are held, conditions which the International Red Cross, among other human rights organizations, have called tantamount to torture."
In prison Lopez has run educational programs for other inmates out of his cell and has become an accomplished artist. An exhibit of his drawings and paintings, Not Enough Space, was shown throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico and Mexico.
Other speakers at the event included the Rev. Roberto Morales, of St. John's Episcopal Church in Kissimmee, Fla.; Denise Diaz of Central Florida Jobs with Justice and the Central Florida Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (national and Central Florida LCLAA have both passed resolutions calling for Lopez's release); and Rico Picard, of community group Frente Unido 436.
Letters of support only (no money or printed materials) may be sent to Oscar Lopez Rivera:
Oscar Lopez Rivera # 87651-024
FCI Terre Haute
P.O. Box 33
Terre Haute, Ind. 47808