A group of Chicago aldermen plans to join U.S. Luis Gutierrez and others from around the country Wednesday for a demonstration outside the White House in a last-ditch plea for President Barack Obama to free a former Chicago man from prison.
His name is Oscar Lopez Rivera.
Lopez has spent the last 35 years of his life in federal prisons for his role as a leader in the militant Puerto Rican nationalist group, FALN.
FALN claimed responsibility for dozens of bombings across the U.S during the 1970s, including here in Chicago, although Lopez’ supporters argue he was never convicted of personally hurting anyone.
Lopez celebrated his 74th birthday just last week at the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Institution, where Gutierrez and the governor of Puerto Rico have been among a bevy of politicians paying their respects in recent years.
His case has become a cause celebre in Puerto Rico, galvanizing the island’s divergent political forces in a joint call for his release. The Puerto Rican community in the U.S. has also taken up the campaign.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and original star of “Hamilton,” made a personal plea to Obama this summer to commute Lopez’ sentence. The New York City Council passed a resolution seeking his release.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders joined the fray during his Democratic presidential campaign, calling upon Obama to “Let him out!” during a campaign appearance in Puerto Rico. Since then, former President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have made similar requests.
Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) said his trip to Washington in support of Lopez is partly personal. The alderman said his late wife’s father was very close to Lopez. Lopez once held Maldonado’s wife when she was an infant, and his release was very important to her before she died.
Lopez was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Chicago at age 14. He was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism during the Vietnam War.
Lopez’ supporters argue he is a political prisoner, portraying him as the Puerto Rican Nelson Mandela.
I think that’s stretching the truth, although I agree that 35 years certainly seems like adequate punishment at this point.
If Obama commutes Lopez’ sentence in these waning days of his administration, it would be the second time a U.S. president has granted him executive clemency.
In a highly controversial move in 2009, President Bill Clinton offered clemency to 14 jailed FALN members, but Lopez was among two who refused to accept it. The offer to Lopez, which would have allowed for his release in 2009, was conditioned on him renouncing the use of violence to achieve independence for Puerto Rico.
Federal officials have argued that’s why Lopez turned down the offer, but Lopez has said it was because no relief was offered to other FALN members then in prison.
At this point, he’s the only FALN member remaining in prison, said his attorney Jan Susler.
The U.S. Parole Commission denied Lopez parole in 2011, citing the seriousness of his offenses and his rejection of the clemency offer.
At his original trial, Lopez refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts.
A federal judge in Chicago called Lopez an “unreconstructed revolutionary” when he sentenced him to 55 years in prison in 1981 after his conviction for seditious conspiracy, use of force to commit robbery, interstate transportation of firearms to aid in the commission of a felony and interstate transportation of stolen vehicles. He was later sentenced in 1988 to another 15 years for conspiring to escape from prison.
Gutierrez, who was attacked as an FALN sympathizer during the early stages of his political career, admits he once would have been afraid to speak out so boldly on Lopez’ behalf.
“We’re in a different situation today,” said Gutierrez, who remains hopeful Obama will act on Lopez’ behalf before he leaves office Jan. 20.Tweets by @MarkBrownCST