World

Meet Oscar Lopez Rivera, the Puerto Rican Independence Activist Obama Freed

Rivera, the longest-serving political prisoner in the US from Latin America, has been incarcerated for 35 years.

A mural dedicated to Oscar López Rivera. Credit: Reuters

A mural dedicated to Oscar López Rivera. Credit: Reuters

Outgoing US President Barack Obama on Tuesday commuted the sentence of Puerto Rican independence leader Oscar Lopez Rivera, the longest-serving political prisoner in the country from Latin America.

According to a report in The Guardian, Obama, in his final days in the office, has issued a record number of pardons and commutations, including allowing the release of Chelsea Manning, the transgender US army soldier who was convicted of leaking over 700,000 US documents to WikiLeaks.

Rivera, 74, whose commutation was announced along with those of 208 others on Tuesday, was serving a 70-year sentence for his role in the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence, the New York Times reported.

The Puerto Rican independence activist was convicted of numerous charges including “seditious conspiracy” against the US and has been behind bars for 35 years.

According to a White House source, under the outgoing president’s order, Rivera’s prison sentence will expire on May 17, Latin American news agency teleSUR reported.

Rivera was born in San Sebastián in Puerto Rico in 1943 and moved to Chicago with his family at the age of 14. He was later drafted to serve in the Vietnam War and upon returning he became involved in community activism and participated in acts of civil disobedience along with other Puerto Ricans in Chicago.

In 1976 he became a member of a radical group known as FALN, the Spanish acronym for the Armed Forces of National Liberation which was accused of carrying out 140 bombings in the US.

Rivera, according to The Guardian, has repeatedly denied any involvement in the fatal attacks and has claimed that he was focused only on the actions in which people’s lives weren’t endangered.

“For me, human life is sacred. We called it ‘armed propaganda’ – using targets to draw attention to our struggle,” he told The Guardian in an interview in 2016.

At the time of his capture in 1981, Rivera proclaimed himself a prisoner of war, protected in the first protocol of the Geneva Convention of 1949.

The US, however, sentenced him to 55 years in prison and after an alleged attempt to escape, the sentence increased to 70 years. Rivera has spent 12 of these years in isolated confinement.

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Protesters call for the release of Oscar Lopez Rivera in October outside the White House. Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press.

Former US President Bill Clinton offered him and other members of FALN a pardon in August 1999 that would have resulted in his early release after a decade. While 12 prisoners accepted the clemency, Rivera turned the deal down because it did not include all members of the group.

Over the years, several human rights organisations have tried to have him freed on parole.

Rivera’s lawyers Jan Susler told the New York Times that there was widespread support for the commutation of his sentence. “Really the only controversy is that this man was still in prison after 35 years after not being convicted of hurting or killing anyone,” she said.