Puerto Ricans Clinton Freed Leave Prisons

September 11, 1999 - Dirk Johnson - The New York Times

CHICAGO -- After vowing to renounce terrorism, 11 members of a Puerto Rican nationalist group walked out of Federal prisons around the country on Friday, freed under an act of clemency by President Clinton that sparked a political firestorm in Washington and in the Senate race in New York.

"I'm elated that I'm free, here with my family," Ricardo Jiménez, one of the released prisoners, told reporters as he left a Federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., in a gold-colored Mercedes.

Those released belonged to the Puerto Rican independence organization F.A.L.N., which was responsible for 130 bombings in the late 1970's and early 1980's. None of those granted clemency, however, had been convicted of crimes that resulted in death or injuries, the White House has said.

A Puerto Rican nationalist group staged a celebration and rally tonight in Chicago, where Mayor Richard M. Daley and police officials have been highly critical of the President's act of clemency.

"It was wrong then; it's wrong today," Daley said earlier this week of the crimes committed by the Puerto Rican nationalists. He said Clinton was wrong to grant clemency without consulting local police officials, and he said he would ask the Federal Bureau of Investigation to keep abreast of the two released prisoners who say they plan to live in Chicago.

Others among those released were said to be going to Puerto Rico.

"I'm sure that we'll be received as patriots in our country, not the criminals we've been labeled as in the United States," Edwin Cortés told The Associated Press before he boarded a plane to San Juan, P.R., at the airport in Harrisburg, Pa. He had spent 16 1/2 years in the Federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa.

"I hope," Cortés said, "to follow the examples, if I could say, of Nelson Mandela, Gerry Adams and Yasser Arafat, who are also labeled as criminals and terrorists but in the minds of their people were patriots. Today, they are considered international statesmen."

At the rally in a mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood in Chicago, Alberto Rodríguez, talking about the F.A.L.N. members left behind in prison, told the cheering crowd, "I am happy, but my happiness is shattered."

"When I walked out of the Terre Haute penitentiary this morning, I left behind a very beautiful person," he said, referring to Oscar Lopez Rivera, who rejected the offer of clemency, calling him "my comrade, my friend, my family."

At the rally of about 200 people on Division Street, Puerto Rican flags were pasted to utility poles and the sounds of a mariachi band filled the chilly September night.

Annie Gonzalez, a Methodist minister in the crowd, described the release of the prisoners as "incredible."

"It meant a lot to the community," Ms. Gonzalez said.

Charges against the F.A.L.N. members stemmed from three cases in Illinois and Connecticut in the early 1980's. Eight of those released today were convicted of seditious conspiracy, weapons charges and other counts after being arrested in a stolen van in the Chicago suburb of Evanston in 1980. They were charged in connection with the armed robbery of a car rental agency in Evanston and were charged with plotting another armed robbery.

Three others were among those convicted of seditious conspiracy and other charges in connection with what prosecutors said was a 1983 plot to bomb two military installations in Chicago.

Juan Enrique Segarra-Palmer, who had his sentence reduced and will be paroled in five years, was convicted of planning the robbery of a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford in 1983, with plans to use the $7.1 million stolen for the militant Puerto Rican group Los Macheteros.

Nine of the 14 F.A.L.N. members who were offered clemency had lived in Chicago. Two refused to renounce terrorism and will remain in prison. F.A.L.N.

comes from the Spanish initials for Armed Forces National Liberation.

In granting clemency, Clinton said the members, who were serving sentences of up to 90 years, had been given punishments that were disproportionate to their offenses.

The move has drawn angry criticism, including outrage from some law-enforcement officials.

Chicago's police superintendent, Terry Hillard, denounced the release this week, saying it made a mockery of the law.

"We say we are not going to negotiate with terrorists," Hillard said. "Are we going to let the Unabomber go now?"

Critics of Clinton have accused him of releasing the prisoners to help his wife, Hillary, win support among Puerto Rican voters in New York, where she is considering a bid for the Senate. In the face of criticism from Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York City, who is weighing a bid for the Senate as a Republican, Mrs. Clinton called on the President to rescind his clemency offer, a move that infuriated some Hispanic leaders in New York.

"I'm still angry," said Representative Jose E. Serrano, Democrat of the Bronx, "and I've heard nothing to change my mind."

Groups that called for the release of the prisoners have hailed the newfound freedom of the F.A.L.N. members, but nonetheless criticized the terms of the clemency agreement as too harsh.

Under the agreement, those released cannot associate with one another. Two of the 11 prisoners released today, Alejandrina Torres and Alberto Rodríguez, have said they plan to live in Chicago. The others plan to move to Puerto Rico.

"This is a long overdue homecoming," said Lin Velazquez, a spokeswoman for the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Political Prisoners, based in Chicago. Despite what she called the "horrible conditions" of the clemency agreement, Ms. Velazquez said "supporters and family members urged them to accept" because "we want them home."

Antonio Camacho-Negrón, rejected the clemency with Rivera. No offer of clemency was made to Carlos Alberto Torres, who is serving a 70-year sentence.

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