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
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.
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
"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."
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Tobar reported from Los Angeles, Getlin from New York.
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times.