TOPICS > Politics

A Clemency Offer

September 8, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Most of the Puerto Rican nationalists who yesterday accepted President Clinton’s offer of clemency have spent nearly 20 years in federal prison. Sixteen of them were originally offered clemency, and all were associated with the FALN, a Puerto Rican separatist group whose name in English means “the armed forces of national liberation.”

Two refused the clemency offer, and two did not respond. The FALN wanted Puerto Rican independence from the United States, ending its status as a U.S. commonwealth.

The group claimed responsibility for at least 130 bombings in American cities between 1974 and 1983, including this one at Merrill Lynch on Wall Street in New York City in 1982. In all those incidents, six people were killed, more than 70 were wounded. Those offered clemency were convicted of weapons or conspiracy charges. None was linked directly to the deaths or injuries. Yesterday lawyers for the prisoners and family members held a news conference in Chicago. Attorney Jan Susler explained the conditions for the prisoners’ release.

JAN SUSLER, Attorney for Prisoners: The President’s offer of clemency had a piece of paper attached to it that they were required to sign in order for that order of clemency to become effective. They signed that document today. The document says, “I renounce violence.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In addition, there will be restrictions on the prisoners’ ability to travel and associate with each other. Last month’s clemency offer was heralded in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, where thousands of people demonstrated in support of the prisoners. Former President Jimmy Carter, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, widow of the civil rights leader, and New York Archbishop John Cardinal O’Conner are among world leaders who have long advocated releasing the prisoners.

But major newspapers reported that clemency was opposed by law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Prisons, and United States attorneys in Illinois and Connecticut, where the court cases were heard. The clemency offer has been especially controversial in New York State, which has 1.3 million Puerto Ricans. Several Democratic congressmen have expressed support, but Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said he opposed clemency.

Hillary Clinton is expected to make a bid for Moynihan’s seat when he retires next year, and last weekend she called on her husband to withdraw his offer. But the president’s offer stood. And the prisoners who took the clemency offer could be released soon.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for two perspectives on the clemency deal, we turn to Republican Congressman Vito Fossella of New York, who today introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives opposing clemency; and to Democratic State Assemblyman Ruben Diaz also of New York. He co-sponsored a resolution now pending in the assembly in favor of clemency.

Congressman Fossella, you oppose the clemency. Why?

REP. VITO FOSSELLA (R-NY): Well, as you indicate in your report, the FALN was perhaps the most notorious terrorist group to engage in terrorism on American soil. The group claims responsibility for killing and maiming innocent people, people who grew up without fathers now as a result of their bombs in Fonce’s Tavern; police officers who were blinded for life.

And frankly, I don’t think we should be sending a signal to terrorists that we’re going to be soft on terrorists. They belong behind bars. That’s why I believe you saw the federal… the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons, the US Attorney’s Office in Chicago and Connecticut all recommend clemency for these individuals. The United States should have no place on American soil for terrorists or terrorism.

And I think what we do is weaken our resolve and in a way, contravene what U.S. policy is towards terrorists and that is never negotiate and make concessions. And what we have now is a clemency offer to known and convicted terrorists who feel, if you listen to some of the reports that came out in the last several years, that what they’ve done was justified, that people who were killed or maimed happened to be casualties of war even though they were innocent people.

And you know, recently, you see reports, not just of members of Congress coming forward, but others around the country who stepped forward and understand this to be a ridiculous offer. And it took several weeks, by the way, after the President put this offer of clemency on the table for any of these people even to renounce violence. And it’s…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. We’ll come back to some of these issues. Let me go to Assemblyman Diaz right now. Why do you favor clemency?

STATE ASSEMBLYMAN RUBEN DIAZ(D-NY): Well, this is long overdue. First of all, I just want to correct the congressman on certain issues that he continues to mislead and misinform the public. First of all, these are not terrorists. They were never convicted of any wrongdoings in terms of homicide or injuries to any one. Secondly, these individuals have renounced violence.

They did it in 1997 at a congressional hearing. They did it on September 1st. And they did it again yesterday when they signed the clemency proposal. So this is information that the congressman, the mayor of the City of New York and other people continue to… this is the way they continue to mislead the public and they’re not factual. What we’re saying is that look, these individuals got convicted for certain crimes, and they’ve paid the price. The true issue here is justice, a just sentence for what they’ve been convicted of. It is consistent with the spirit– and I have to commend the President in offering them this clemency– it’s consistent with the spirit where we go out advocating for the freedom of political prisoners and supporting freedom fighters throughout the world. So it’s only fitting that we do that here in the United States.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Assemblyman Diaz — just a second, Congressman Fossella– why is this happening now, given the opposition from the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons? Why do you think this is happening now?

STATE ASSEMBLYMAN RUBEN DIAZ: You mean the same FBI who lied about Waco? We’ve had our commutations of sentences done in the past. I’ve never heard of the FBI support any clemency or commutation before. It is not their job to do so. They’re law enforcement. The reason why it’s happening now is, many people want to say that it’s for political reasons. Well, look, we’ve been advocating for this with President Clinton for the last six, seven years. It’s just that this is a slow lengthy process, and of course we’ve seen that the President had his own issues to deal with. And I’m glad that finally he’s come around where he can address this issue.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay, Congressman Fossella, why do you think it’s happening now?

REP. VITO FOSSELLA: Well, I’m not so concerned with why it’s happening now. I’m concerned with the fact that it’s happening at all. With all due respect to Mr. Diaz we’re not talking about a bunch of boy scouts or girl scouts. We had the U.S. Attorney, who prosecuted these folks in Chicago, in a letter to the editor in the “Wall Street Journal” yesterday, who indicated that some of these petitioners for clemency were videotaped in a bomb factory making bombs that were going to be used to be planted at military institutions.

STATE ASSEMBLYMAN RUBEN DIAZ: And they paid the price for that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just a second. I’ll get back to you. Go ahead, Congressman Fossella.

REP. VITO FOSSELLA: Other petitioners were caught when pulled over in a van had, in the back of their van, armed… weapons that were going to be used to steal money to fund FALN operations, FALN operations that led to the murder and maiming of innocent people. And Mr. Diaz, again, with all due respect, the people of Puerto Rico have had the opportunity to express their desire to seek independence. Less than 3 percent of the Puerto Rican people want independence — the thing that these freedom fighters you claim are fighting for. In a civilized society, we go to the polls and vote, and if we don’t get our way, we don’t go out planting bombs in restaurants and banks, killing people.

STATE ASSEMBLYMAN RUBEN DIAZ: Let me just mention this: Again, these individuals had nothing to do with this. Congressman, if you can show me some evidence where they were directly involved in the bombings of individuals or hurt anybody person…gave anybody physical harm, produce the evidence. And we’re not…wait. I didn’t interrupt you. We’re not condoning them the act of violence. I’m not saying that what happened to these police officers isn’t wrong. My sister’s a police officer here in the Bronx in the City of New York. And another thing, this is not about the independence of Puerto Rico because I, for one, am not in favor of the independence of Puerto Rico. This is about human rights, this is about people who have already served long-term, excessively long terms for what they’ve been convicted of. They have never ever killed anyone, they’ve never caused bodily harm to anyone or any injury or maimed anyone. That’s what…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Congressman Fossella, let me ask you something: You said you’re not concerned about the timing of this. What about the politics of this? You don’t think it was a political act, this clemency? And also, what’s your view of the First Lady’s request that it be rescinded?

REP. VITO FOSSELLA: Well, with all due respect, honestly, I’ve not been concerned with the motivation of this act. There’s nothing I can do about it. What I’ve been trying to do is to have the President rescind this offer. You know, for the purposes of public disclosure here, the power of clemency is an awesome power that’s vested with the President. He has exercised it — this President has exercised it three times in seven years, with more than 3,000 requests for clemency. I believe everybody in federal prison wants to get out of jail. That’s why it used sparingly because, in effect, it reverses the political process. Now, again, Mr. Diaz is saying that this is not about independence, this is about freedom-fighting. No. What these people did were part of a network of terrorist organizations through the 70′s and the 80′s who proclaimed proudly that what they did was right and justified in the name of freedom. Now, what they were doing was terrorizing our nation, and we should not be sending the signal to be…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think of the First Lady’s request, Congressman?

REP. VITO FOSSELLA: My view, when Mrs. Clinton came forward with that– one wonders why it took three weeks to make up her mind. But nevertheless, my view was very plain. The more people who came forward to oppose clemency, in addition to Mrs. Clinton was Senator Moynihan and I understand Bill Bradley, as well, and a plethora of others, came forward to oppose clemency. I would hope that that would underscore I think what most Americans would want, the President to rescind the offer, particularly after it took weeks for these prisoners not to renounce violence or to agree to the terms and conditions of the offers.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Assemblyman Diaz, your view of the First Lady’s request it be rescinded?

STATE ASSEMBLYMAN RUBEN DIAZ: I think that the First Lady in this particular issue, like the Congressman, has been misinformed. And I say that because these individuals have renounced violence, starting… in 1997. They reaffirmed their renunciation on September 1st, three days prior to the First Lady making this statement. And so, again, like the Congressman, who continues to say that they took so long, he should go back and see because there was a congressional hearing to see that it’s on record, it is documented where they renounced violence. The First Lady should have been… should have consulted the political leadership here in the Puerto Rican community, the Puerto Ricans here in the City of New York. She should have spoken to someone. I think that she was misled, she was misinformed and her statements were wrong and inappropriate.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Congressman Fossella, what next? Will there be hearings in the House and, if so, with what goal?

REP. VITO FOSSELLA: Well, I suspect what’s next is there’s going to be a resolution on the floor of Congress within perhaps the next couple of days. And next week I understand there are hearings scheduled at the House and the Senate to determine whether proper procedures were formed followed here. Normally in a clemency proceeding, the prisoners themselves initiate the process and…the process and the forms work their way up to the President. There’s been some reports that these people did not follow that process, or this process was not properly followed. In addition, it’s been reported in “Newsweek” Magazine that these 16 prisoners offered clemency were reported on tape that if they were to be released they would engage in acts of violence and terrorism again.

STATE ASSEMBLYMAN RUBEN DIAZ: Can you produce that tape?

REP. VITO FOSSELLA: I think the American people deserve to know whether those tapes exist or not. So that I think would be the purpose of the hearing. In addition, one of these people who -

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let me just — I only have a little time. Assemblyman Diaz, please respond to that and also say what next, from your point of view.

STATE ASSEMBLYMAN RUBEN DIAZ: Look, what I would say simply is if you can produce the tape, Congressman, where they said that they will go back to their violence, then I will be the first to say that the President should rescind his clemency offer. I will be the first to say that.

REP. VITO FOSSELLA: Let me just say…

STATE ASSEMBLYMAN RUBEN DIAZ: Wait. Let me finish. And, secondly, what I would say next is that we have to deal with the real issue here. For 101 years Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States and it’s about time that the government of the United States, along with the people of Puerto Rico, decide what is the relationship going to be, whether independence or statehood. We can’t be in between anymore, Congressman.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Thank you. I’m sorry, gentlemen, that’s all the time we’ve got. Thank you both.

REP. VITO FOSSELLA: Thank you very much.