The Los Angeles Times
September 8, 1999
12 Puerto Rican Inmates Accept Clemency Offer
Law: Nationalists agree to conditions. Case is becoming a
minefield for first lady's Senate aspirations in New York.

              By HECTOR TOBAR, JOSH GETLIN, Times Staff Writers

                      NEW YORK--Facing a fast-approaching deadline and a
                      political firestorm, a group of Puerto Rican nationalists
                      imprisoned for 19 years as terrorists accepted the conditions of
                      clemency spelled out last month by the Clinton administration, their
                      attorneys and the White House said Tuesday.
                      The announcement came as the controversy over the clemency offer
                      reached new heights when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said
                      she disagreed with her husband and said he should withdraw the
                      "It just seemed it was becoming an issue for all the politicians to
                      weigh in on," said attorney Michael Deutsch of Chicago, explaining
                      why the 12 prisoners accepted the offer after indicating they might
                      reject it. "We're not dealing with reality, we're dealing with people's
                      political agendas."
                      Administration officials continue to maintain that politics played no
                      role in the president's decision. "The president expects all those who
                      accept the conditional clemency grant to abide fully by its terms,
                      including refraining from the use or advocacy of the use of violence
                      for any purpose and obeying all the statutory conditions of parole,"
                      White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said in a statement.
                      In New York, the case--with its complex mesh of nationalism and
                      terrorism--has proved to be a minefield for Hillary Clinton's
                      exploratory campaign for the U.S. Senate, showing the perils of
                      running for office as first lady. The negative fallout from Mrs.
                      Clinton's weekend announcement opposing clemency continued to
                      be heard throughout the political community.
                      The men and women, members of a Puerto Rican independence
                      group that took responsibility for more than 100 bombings in the
                      United States in the late 1970s, were convicted of seditious
                      conspiracy and weapons charges. Prosecutors never linked those
                      offered clemency to any deaths or injuries. Still, authorities say the
                      group, known by its Spanish initials, FALN, was responsible for six
                      Over the holiday weekend, the Clinton administration had given the
                      prisoners a Friday deadline to accept the conditions, which include
                      a renunciation of violence and a promise to obey unspecified
                      conditions of parole.
                      Two of the 16 prisoners offered clemency--Carlos Torres and
                      Oscar Lopez--declined. Two others not in prison but whose fines
                      would be reduced have more time to respond. Some of the
                      prisoners signed the clemency offer Tuesday morning, family
                      members said. Among those accepting the offer was Elizam
                      Escobar, who called the terms "humiliating" in a prison interview
                      with The Times last week.
                      A Justice Department spokeswoman said the administration had not
                      yet received the prisoners' formal acceptance of the offer and that it
                      was too early to say when they might be released.
                      "It is a tragic day that these terrorists may soon be walking
                      America's streets," said Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.), a leading
                      critic of the clemency offer. "I call on the president to
                      unconditionally reject this offer of clemency. I don't want to see one
                      more innocent American killed by this group."
                      By contrast, the impending release of the prisoners was being
                      celebrated by many in Puerto Rico, where the campaign on their
                      behalf has become a cause celebre supported by former President
                      Jimmy Carter, New York Archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor and
                      others who said their prison terms were excessive. Although only a
                      small minority of Puerto Ricans support independence, the prisoners
                      received backing from many others who thought they were treated
                      "Whenever they come out, there's going to be one hell of a party in
                      East Harlem and all over New York," said attorney Gloria
                      Quinones, a childhood friend of one of the prisoners. "They are our
                      freedom fighters. They are our Nelson Mandelas."
                      Such sentiments were echoed by a number of Puerto Rican
                      politicians at a news conference Tuesday in Manhattan. Some
                      prominent Latino leaders, who had already signed on to support
                      Mrs. Clinton's campaign, said her reversal on the clemency plan
                      might prompt them to withdraw their support.
                      "Hillary Clinton's statement was wrong. It was inappropriate," said
                      Democratic state Assemblyman Roberto Ramirez. "It is an issue the
                      first lady will have to address."
                      Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.) complained that Mrs. Clinton's
                      statement distracted attention from serious discussion of the case.
                      "She is on a listening tour, isn't she?" Velazquez asked. "I would
                      advise her strongly to continue, and to come to our community to
                      see what the issues are."
                      Critics charged that Mrs. Clinton was trying to have it both ways on
                      a politically sensitive issue. When the president first proposed
                      clemency, Hillary Clinton had little to say, and the conventional
                      wisdom was that the offer would help her among New York's 1.3
                      million Puerto Rican residents. But Saturday, she said the offer
                      should be rescinded, since the prisoners had not responded quickly
                      But the first lady ultimately spoke out against the deal after a parade
                      of law-and-order opponents--most notably New York Mayor
                      Rudolph W. Giuliani, her probable rival in the Senate
                      race--denounced the offer as being soft on terrorism.
                      "I know she originally strongly supported it, but now she strongly
                      opposes it," Giuliani said. "She'll have to answer questions on why
                      she changed her position."
                      Republicans appeared likely to keep the issue alive by holding
                      congressional hearings on the clemency proposal in the fall, all of
                      which could have been an embarrassment and distraction for Mrs.
                      Clinton's campaign.
                      The Clintons' Democratic allies appeared confused by the rapidly
                      evolving controversy. The Democratic senator she hopes to
                      succeed, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, opposed the clemency. Sen.
                      Charles E. Schumer of New York refused to speculate on why the
                      president and Mrs. Clinton had taken their respective positions but
                      insisted that it had no relationship to the U.S. Senate race. He urged
                      the White House to release any documents showing that the
                      prisoners, if freed, would no longer be a threat to public safety.
                      At first, several of the prisoners indicated they were inclined to
                      reject the clemency offer. By law, they will be required to obey
                      several conditions of parole, including a prohibition against
                      associating with convicted felons--a condition that might prevent
                      them from speaking to one another.
                      In the end, however, it became clear that the Clinton administration
                      was not likely to make a better offer.
                      Among those accepting clemency were two sisters, Ida Luz and
                      Alicia Rodriguez.
                      "I think it's better that they come out, even if this is not the way we
                      wanted them to come out," said their mother, Josefina Rodriguez,
                      68, of Chicago. "You can imagine how we feel. They've been away
                      from home for a long time."
                                             * * *
                      Tobar reported from Los Angeles, Getlin from New York.

                      Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times.