Puerto Rican Political Prisoner/Prisoner of Conscience
Oscar Lopez Rivera and Ana Belen Montes
They are workers and professionals, students and teachers, community organizers, artists, mothers, and fathers of families. They are fighters of Puerto Rico’s Independence and social justice. These men and women found Puerto Rico’s Colonial reality intolerable and unacceptable. This situation led them to join the Puerto Rican Independence movement and to confront the United States government directly. The majority of the Political Prisoners have spent more than 18 years in federal prisons for their political activities.
During the 1970's and the beginning of the 80's, the prisoners were involved in community, union, student and political struggles in Puerto Rico and the United States. They fought for the people's right to high quality, free education. They worked to create community institutions such as alternative education programs, child-care centers, health centers, housing cooperatives, recreational facilities and political organizations. They participated actively in churches, student groups, unions, professional associations, committees against repression, campaigns against youth violence and drugs. In summary they challenged the U.S. political system in many ways.
The U.S. invaded Puerto Rico on July 25th, 1898 and for over 100 years has exercised colonial control over the people of Puerto Rico. International Law defines colonialism as a crime against humanity and gives a colonized people the right to use all means at their disposal to end the colonial domination by a foreign power. United Nations Resolution 1514 calls for a transfer of all political power to the colonized nation, the withdrawal of all military and paramilitary troops, reparations and the freedom of all political prisoners for a process of de-colonization to be genuine one, in compliance with International Law.
Throughout their lives they suffered the Puerto Rican colonial reality and the consequences of their political and community involvement. They were fired from their jobs, kicked out of schools and universities, denied scholarships, threatened, spied on, attacked by the police and the FBI. And when they rose up and fought against these injustices they were branded as terrorists and placed in some of the worst prisons in the U.S.
Arrests and Punitive Sentences
In a series of arrests carried out between 1980 and 1985 around 30 people were accused of acting or conspiring to overthrow the authority of the U.S. government in Puerto Rico through force, in other words acting in favor of Puerto Rico's independence and self-determination. At the beginning of the 1980's fourteen people accused of being members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN, its acronym in Spanish) were arrested. At the time of their arrest they declared themselves to be combatants in an anti- colonial war to liberate Puerto Rico from U.S. domination and invoked prisoner of war status. They argued that the U.S. courts and its political subdivisions did not have jurisdiction to try them as criminals and petitioned for their cases to be handed over to an international, impartial court that would determine their status. The U.S. government did not recognize their request. Today these individuals are serving sentences of 35 to 90 years.
On August 30, 1985, hundreds of FBI agents descended on Puerto Rico and searched the houses and offices of independence supporters. Thirteen people were arrested that day and three others later on. These people were immediately removed from Puerto Rico in military transport and moved to the United States where they were held in preventative detention, some for as long as three years, without bail being set. They were accused of conspiring to rob $7.5 million from Wells Fargo, an action for which the clandestine group "Los Macheteros" had taken responsibility. The charges included transporting the money outside the United States and using the money to buy and distribute toys to poor Puerto Rican children. Of the accused, one was found innocent and the government dropped charges against another one. The rest of the accused were sentenced to between 5 to 55 years. Seven of them have already completed their sentences or are about to complete them. The sentences received by these Puerto Rican patriots are excessive and punitive. Their goal is to penalize political activity, militancy, and affiliation. Ten of the fourteen arrested between 1980 and 1983 were sentenced to serve terms ranging between 55 and 90 years. The average sentence among this group is 71.6 years: 70.8 years for the men and 72.8 years for the women. These sentences are 19 times longer than the average sentence given out the year they were sentenced. The majority are serving the equivalent of a life sentence. Of those that were arrested as a result of the Wells Fargo case, two were sentenced to more than 50 years in prison.
Common prisoners - those who commit criminal offenses- receive sentences that are much shorter. For example, statistics from the federal court system show that between 1966 and 1985 the average sentence for all those people found guilty of murder was 22.7 years; of rape, 12.5 years; of violation of arms laws, 12 years. Only 12.8% of all federal prisoners have sentences of more than 20 years: Also the statistics show that those people with previous criminal records receive longer sentences. None of the Puerto Rican patriots in prison had a prior criminal record at the time of their arrest. In reality, the longest average time served by any prisoners in federal custody is for kidnapping: 5.3 years.' A study shows that those persons sentenced by state courts for serious violent crimes served between 2.5 and 4 years. The Puerto Rican political prisoners have already served between 13 and 18 years in prison. Four of the prisoners have appeared before the U.S. Parole Board, only to be told to come back in 15 years or serve the remainder of their sentence.
The political nature of these sentences is made evident by comparing them to the preferential treatment given to people linked to right-wing, anti-communist, or anti-abortion groups accused of violent crimes. For example in 1976 Orlando Letelier, a leader in the movement against the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, and his assistant ,were assassinated by a bomb that was placed in Letelier's car which was parked in front of his residence in Washington, Dc. The agent of the Chilean secret police who admitted to having placed the bomb was sentenced to 10 years in prison, of which he served 5 years and two months. A major in the Chilean army received a sentence of 7 years for his role in the assassination and a Cuban exile who admitted his role in the plot received a 12 year sentence.
A Ku Klux Klan Wizard, who was captured in a boat with an arsenal of arms and explosives while attempting to invade a Caribbean island with the goal of establishing a white supremacist state received a three year sentence and was freed on parole after two years.' Another Klan leader received a sentence of three years for possession of an arsenal and for conspiracy. This same man was later sentenced to three more years in prison for attempted murder and racial harassment after shooting at two black men.
Two women anti-abortion activists sentenced for conspiring in a series of Florida bombings including a doctor's office and a women's clinic, were put on probation and received a small fine. Their male co-conspirators received ten years in prison and a fine for three of the explosions, and were not tried for the fourth explosion." Michael Donald Bray who was found guilty of bombing ten clinics was sentenced to ten years and was set free after serving 3.7 years.
The excessive sentences imposed on Puerto Rican women and men in prison, because of their political activities, make it clear that the goal is to punish them for their beliefs and not for the acts that were alleged by the U.S. government at the time of their arrest.
Human Rights Violations
During their imprisonment, the Puerto Rican political prisoners have been the objects of cruel treatment and degrading and inhumane conditions. This is in direct violation of international norms I which prohibit discriminatory treatment of prisoners by prison personnel based on their political beliefs or opinions. [United Nations' Minimum Uniform Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners (UNSMRTP), Rule A 1 6 (1 ).]
Federal regulations stipulate that prisoners should be put in prisons as close as possible to their homes and families. Nevertheless the Puerto Rican political prisoners have been kept far from their families and communities in the United States and/or Puerto Rico. For example, all those arrested on August 30, 1985 in Puerto Rico have had to serve their sentences in the United States despite the existence of a federal prison in Puerto Rico. Adolfo Matos, a former Political Prisoner, was assigned to a prison in Southern California even though there is a prison very close to where his family lives in New York. Elizam Escobar, a former Political Prisoner, requested a transfer to a prison near to New York to be closer to his son who lives in New York City. Although hundreds of prisoners have been assigned to prisons in the New York area, Elizam has been denied a transfer on the grounds of overcrowding. Further, the political prisoners have been moved around continually to different maximum security prisons without prior warning to their families and/or lawyers. Some of the prisoners have been attacked sexually.
For example, Alejandrina Torres, a former Political Prisoner, was attacked by personnel in three different prisons. The first assault took place when she was locked in a men's unit, permitting the men to exhibit themselves in front of her. In a second incident a male lieutenant forced her to put her head between his knees and observed while female guards tore off her clothes and left her naked. The authorities responded to complaints by putting Alejandrina in solitary confinement, prohibiting her to call her family and lawyer to denounce the abuses. She was penalized for violating prison rules, and a secret letter was written to a judge assigned to her case giving a false version of the events. In another prison female guards held her while a male guard inserted his fingers in her vagina and her anus during a "search”. The warden who ordered the search admitted later that he did not suspect Alejandrina of having contraband, and that the search was in violation of prison rules.
Even though U.S. law stipulates that prisoners should receive medical service equal to that of the standards available to the general community, the Puerto Rican political prisoners have been denied adequate medical attention.
Some of the prisoners have been locked in an underground prison with the goal of destroying them physically, psychologically, and politically. For example, Oscar Lopez who was in a maximum security prison in Marion, IL, wrote in 1993: “I am enclosed in a cell that is 8 feet wide by 9 feet long on an average of 22 hours each day. Today while I write this letter I have been 36 hours without going out and tomorrow if they 1 do not take us out it will have three days without moving from this same space. In this little space I have to do everything. From eating my meals to taking care of my needs. So it is my dining room and latrine at the same time. My bed is a slab of cement. And the whole cell is painted the same dead yellow color. From an aesthetic point of view it is as attractive as a jail for zoo animals.”
In their 1987 report, the organization Amnesty International condemned the conditions at Marion saying:
In Marion, violations of the Minimum Standard Rules [of the United Nations for the treatment of prisoners] are common...There is almost no rule in the Minimum Standard Rules that is not broken in one form or another...
The 1990 report by the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Administration of Justice expresses “concern[...] about the amount of time that the prisoners spend in their cells in rel- ative isolation and the limited opportunities for productive activity and recreation available in a highly controlled environment." And the necessity to "continue developing a more humane focus for the imprisonment of prisoners in a maximum security prison." Oscar Lopez was held at ADX Florence, Colorado, where sleep deprivation techniques and isolation are common practice. After two years in Florence he was transferred back to Marion, even though the jail authorities had recommended transferring him to a federal prison of his choice.
From 1986 to 1988 Alejandrina Torres was put in a Maximum Security Unit for women in Lexington, KY. Acknowledging the ideological character of the assignment to this unit, a federal judge stated in
Baraldini v Meese:
One thing is to place persons under greater security because they have histories of escape attempts and pose special risks for our correctional facilities. But con- signing anyone to a high security unit for past political associations which they will never shed unless forced to renounce them is a dangerous mission for this country's prison system to continue.
Amnesty International concluded in 1988 that the conditions and diet in this unit were "deliberately and gratuitously oppressive." The UNSMRTP states clearly that prisoners should be allowed to communicate with their family and friends, including visits, and that "prison personnel should be responsible for assuring and improving [the relations of] prisoners" with their families. Federal regulations and the U.S. Prison Board Rules repeat the same thing (28 CFR Sec.540.40). Nevertheless Oscar Lopez Rivera was not permitted any visit that involved physical contact. Some of the prisoners have to submit to a search before and after visits by their families even though they only see them through a glass window and speak to them by telephone. Some of the prisoners are restricted to visits by their immediate family members. While Alejandrina Torres was in Lexington her son-in-law and grandchildren were not included in this definition of immediate family used by the prison authorities. Carlos Alberto Torres, Ida Luz Rodriguez and Alejandrina Torres have suffered through periods from months to years where communication with anyone outside of their immediate family has been prohibited. Many requests for visits by different friends have been denied and political literature has been censored.
In the United States common prisoners are allowed to visit an immediate family member who is dying or to attend his or her funeral. This gesture of decency has been denied the Puerto Rican political prisoners. When Carmen Valentin’s, a former Political Prisoner, father died, she was not allowed to attend the funeral, even though her family was willing to pay all the expenses of the trip. Ricardo Jimenez’s, a former Political Prisoner, mother died without having seen him after having endured cancer for two years which prevented her from visiting him in prison. Elizam Escobar could not visit his father while he was sick nor was he allowed to attend his funeral.
Puerto Rico's Colonial case
Rico has been a colony for
500 years, first of Spain and then of the
United States. In 1898, at the conclusion of what is called the Spanish-
War, Spain was forced to cede the island
nation to the United States pursuant to a treaty between Spain, France
and the United
States. No one conferred with the people of
Puerto Rico, in violation of a Charter of Autonomy signed by Spain and
Rico which provided that the island's status
could not be altered without consulting the Puerto Rican people. The
declared martial law, installed a U.S.
governor, and began a pro- gram to alter and destroy the fiber of Puerto
the years, the U.S. destroyed Puerto Rico's
agrarian economy; devalued its money; imposed citizenship on its people
drafting its men into the U.S. army to fight
the U.S.' wars; imposed the teaching of the English language and U.S.
on its students; polluted its air, land, and
water; sterilized its women; and installed 21 U.S. military bases on some of the best land.
Puerto Rico's colonial reality cannot be overlooked. George Bush admitted during his presidency that Puerto Rico's people had never been consulted on their status. Even Pedro Rosello, the colonial governor, called attention to Puerto Rico's colonial status in testimony before the United Nations in 1993. As with any people of one nation dominated by another, there have always been Puerto Ricans who resisted the U.S. government's control of their nation's sovereignty. Their resistance, whether the mere advocacy of independence or the taking up arms against the colonizer, has been censored and criminalized, punished throughout the years by harassment, surveillance, imprisonment, and even summary execution. The examples are numerous. Some recent examples include: in 1979 two pro-independence youth were assassinated at Cerro Maravilla by the police after an under cover agent set up a trap and the Puerto Rican government participated in the cover up that ensued; in 1987 it was discovered that the Puerto Rican police in collaboration with the FBI had maintained a list of so called "subversives" along with over 135,000 files on Puerto Rican citizens for strictly political reasons in clear violation of the Puerto Rican Constitution; in September, 1994 an ex-member of the intelligence division of the Puerto Rican Police was arrested and accused (along with other members of his division) of kidnapping, torturing, and assassinating in 1977 the labor leader, Juan Rafael Caballero.
International law denounces colonialism as a crime and recognizes a colonized people's right to end colonialism by any means at their disposal. The United Nations recognizes that these laws apply to the case of Puerto Rico. For many years now, the United Nations' De-colonization Committee has approved resolutions recognizing the inalienable right of Puerto Rico's people to independence and self-determination.
actions of the Puerto Rican political
prisoners are comparable to those of George
Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Washington and Jefferson denounced the
of British control over their colonies. They
fought for the principle of democracy, and gained independence.
US government recognized that Nelson
Mandela's imprisonment by the South African apartheid government was
was jailed for 27 years on charges of
attempting to overthrow the apartheid government through violent means.
Jefferson and Mandela before them, the Puerto
Rican political prisoners are conscientious activists for freedom and
The Puerto Rican National Liberation Struggle
The colonial reality of Puerto Rico has created a National Liberation struggle that has produced many independence Freedom Fighters and many pro-independence organizations; that have been actively educating, organizing, and mobilizing the Puerto Rican community against U.S. colonialism. The nature of anti-colonial struggles often gives birth to clandestine revolutionary organizations, which engage in armed struggle against the colonial powers.
The Puerto Rican Political Prisoners were apart of two of these clandestine organizations;Las Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (FALN) and Los Macheteros. Their arrests and subsequent imprisonment correspond to a planned effort by the FBI to destroy their organizations and repress their activities.
In 1978, the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) --a clandestine pro-independence group operating in the US-- was designated by the FBI as one of the most significant threats to the security of the United States. Between 1980 and 1983, 14 alleged members of the FALN were arrested, accused of seditious conspiracy, and sentenced to prison terms between 50 and 90 years.
August, 1985, the FBI arrested 13 people
accused of being members of the clandestine
group Los Macheteros (machete wielders) in Puerto Rico. On September
Macheteros claimed responsibility for the
expropriation of $7 millions from a Wells Fargo depot in Connecticut.
arrests of August 1985, around 300 agents
were used to search the houses and offices of dozens of pro-independence
and sympathizers. The agents made a massive
display of weapons; dozens of houses were submitted to electronic
for months in violation of the US
Constitution and Puerto Rico's laws; tens of thousands of calls were
taped; those arrested
were taken out of Puerto Rico and brought to
trials in the mainland. The accused were kept in preventive detention
than a year, and their most elemental rights
It is important to note that under United Nations Resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 of December 1960, it states that colonialism is an international crime and that a colonized people have every right to use whatever means necessary to end their colonial plight (which includes armed struggle). This international resolution makes Puerto Rico’s colonial reality and the imprisonment of the Puerto Rican Political Prisoners an international crime and human rights violations.