In an exciting development on Jan. 17, two U.S. political prisoners, anti-war whistleblower Chelsea Manning and Puerto Rican freedom fighter Oscar López Rivera, had their sentences commuted by President Barack Obama.
The Party for Socialism and Liberation celebrates their pending freedom, which is set for four months from now, May 17. Of course, they should be allowed to go home immediately to their families and supporters.
López Rivera is a lifelong revolutionary who declared himself a prisoner of war after his arrest in 1981. Then a member of the Puerto Rican “Armed Forces for National Liberation” (FALN), López was unjustly convicted on the dragnet charges of “seditious conspiracy.” He has been imprisoned for more than 35 years.
As his attorney Jan Susler has stated, he was “punished for his beliefs and affiliations, for who he is, not for any act he committed.” He was never charged nor convicted of hurting or killing anyone, but he received a sentence far longer than typical for those types of crimes.
Rejecting the spurious charge of sedition, López Rivera rightfully identifies as a freedom fighter for the liberation of his Puerto Rican homeland from U.S. colonialism. The U.S. government illegally occupied Puerto Rico starting in 1898 and has dictated its internal affairs, militarizing the island, super exploiting its people and driving it to the point of total bankruptcy today.
Chelsea Manning, a trans woman, was a U.S. army soldier from 2009 to 2010 in Iraq, then known as Bradley Manning. With her experience in Iraq, she turned against the U.S. war, and eventually revealed to Wikileaks organization several hundred thousand U.S. military documents, including video and other material exposing the killing of Iraqi, Afghan and Yemeni civilians by U.S. air strikes.
But what was prosecuted in a U.S. military trial were not the U.S. war crimes she exposed. Instead, for her courageous whistleblowing, Chelsea Manning was tried on espionage charges that could have brought the death penalty. She announced her identity as Chelsea immediately after her 35-year sentence was imposed in August 2013. During much of her imprisonment, she was subjected to harsh and humiliating treatment. To this day, despite her finally being granted hormone replacement therapy and approval of eventual gender transition surgery, she still has been denied the right to grow her hair longer than for U.S. military males.
The people’s movement frees political prisoners
While President Obama has signed the commutation orders, it is the determined people’s movement in the United States and worldwide that has freed both López Rivera and Manning.
López Rivera is an icon in the Puerto Rican independence movement, and today all of Puerto Rico was cheering and celebrating his coming freedom. By mid-December 2016, more than 100,000 new petitions had reached the White House calling for his release. Manning is celebrated widely in the LGBTQ community as the hero that she is, as well as in anti-war and other progressive movements.
In 2013, at San Francisco’s Pride celebration—the largest LGBTQ parade in the world—the 1,000-strong contingent of Chelsea Manning’s supporters was granted the highest award, “The Absolutely Fabulous Overall Contingent.” The next year, she was named an official Parade Grand Marshal.
Still more prisoners to be freed
In the weeks and days approaching the end of Obama’s presidency, numerous petitions were circulated for López Rivera, Manning and other prominent political prisoners. The U.S. president has the power to commute or pardon federal prisoners. For example, on December 17, 2014, the sentences of the three remaining Cuban Five heroes, unjustly imprisoned since 1998, were commuted by Obama, amid other agreements with the Cuban government. The Five flew home the same day to mass celebration in Cuba.
And yet, many other U.S. political prisoners languish behind bars.
Leonard Peltier, Native leader has been held in U.S. prisons for more than 40 years, one of the longest sentences served in U.S. history. He was falsely convicted for the deaths of two FBI agents, who were killed in a sudden FBI raid and shoot-out on Pine Ridge Native reservation in South Dakota in 1975.
Despite the fact that his co-defendants were exonerated at trial for the same charges, the FBI waged a war on Peltier, the last defendant, who had escaped to Canada and was not originally tried. He was extradited on falsified FBI “evidence,” and ever since his trial he continues to be hounded and persecuted by the FBI.
In 2001, after massive appeals for Peltier’s clemency, President Bill Clinton indicated he was considering a possible commutation of Peltier’s sentence before he left office. But after more than 500 armed FBI agents surrounded the White House to demand he not be freed, Clinton acquiesced to that pressure.
In the days and hours before Obama leaves office, there is an urgent call for supporters to contact the White House and call on Obama to free Leonard Peltier. To act before Trump’s inauguration, visit here.
We salute Oscar López Rivera and Chelsea Manning for their resistance and celebrate their coming freedom. The struggle continues to demand freedom for Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal, Mutulu Shakur, Russell Maroon Shoatz, and so many others who are cruelly held. The people have the power!