The Washington Post
Saturday, September 11, 1999; Page A2

Puerto Rican Nationalists Freed From Prison

                  By Charles Babington
                  Washington Post Staff Writer

                  Most of the 14 Puerto Rican nationalists granted clemency by President
                  Clinton left prison yesterday and prepared to return to their homeland
                  after years behind bars.

                  Friends and relatives celebrated their releases from various prisons around
                  the country, but few people saw a quick end to the political controversy
                  the clemency has stirred. Both the House and Senate have scheduled
                  hearings next week on Clinton's decision, and some Hispanic officials in
                  New York say the episode has cooled their enthusiasm for Hillary
                  Rodham Clinton's possible Senate campaign in that state.

                  The 14 were members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation,
                  known by its Spanish initials FALN, which sought independence for
                  Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. FALN was responsible for more than 100
                  bombings in Chicago and elsewhere in the late 1970s and early 1980s,
                  which left six dead and many injured. But none of the 14 was found to be
                  directly responsible for the deaths or injuries.

                  Clinton on Aug. 11 offered them conditional clemency if they would
                  renounce violence. He later said he was swayed in part by the long
                  sentences most had served and by appeals made on their behalf by former
                  president Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and

                  Last night, several hundred members of Chicago's Puerto Rican
                  community celebrated the release of the prisoners with music and
                  speeches before ex-prisoner Ricardo Jimenez took the stage to wild
                  cheers. Speaking in Spanish, Jimenez called for a "Puerto Rico libre" and
                  said he would not stop the fight until Oscar Lopez Rivera and the other
                  prisoners are free. He said Lopez Rivera was the last person he hugged
                  before leaving prison, and that leaving him behind caused him the greatest

                  Jimenez thanked the Chicagoans for campaigning for the prisoners'
                  release. "There was not one day in all this time that you didn't fight for our
                  liberty," he said.

                  Jose Lopez, who is the brother of Lopez Rivera and directs the Humboldt
                  Park cultural center where the celebration was held, said the release made
                  people "really happy. It's an incredible thing just to have them here with us
                  and be able to see them and touch them."

                  Saying that the prisoners' situation is "ultimately about colonialism," Lopez
                  added, "What Nelson Mandela is to South Africa, Ricardo Jimenez is to

                  Cook County Commissioner Roberto Maldonado, who is Puerto Rican
                  and whose office is several blocks from the casita, also applauded the
                  release but criticized the conditions. "I'm concerned that with all the
                  conditions, they'll just try to throw them back in jail," Maldonado said.
                  "They were convicted of seditious conspiracy; they were never convicted
                  of terrorist acts. They shouldn't be labeled as terrorists."

                  Clinton offered clemency to 16 FALN members, but two turned him
                  down. Of the 14 others, two already were out of prison, but the
                  president's decision will soften the post-release conditions on them.
                  Another will be eligible for release in a couple of years. The remaining 11
                  were scheduled for release yesterday.

                  "It's our opinion that this closes a major chapter in the effort to bring some
                  reconciliation in this matter," said Manuel Mirabal, president of the
                  Washington-based National Puerto Rican Coalition. "We believe it is a
                  matter of justice. . . . Today, sentencing standards would never provide
                  for the length of sentences that these individuals received."

                  The original sentences ranged from 35 to 90 years. Most of those
                  released yesterday had spent more than a decade in prison.

                  Clinton's clemency decision triggered a national debate when several
                  Republicans accused him of trying to curry favor for his wife among New
                  York's Puerto Rican voters. They noted that Clinton had granted only
                  three of 3,000 previous clemency requests. Clinton said politics played no
                  role in his decision.

                  The first lady said last week that she felt the clemency offer should be
                  withdrawn because the FALN members had not vowed to renounce
                  violence. She later said she was not aware that her husband had set a
                  Sept. 10 deadline for the members to accept the conditional offer.

                  "I haven't discussed other clemency issues with her, and I didn't think I
                  should discuss this one," the president told reporters Thursday.

                  Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), a Puerto Rico native and supporter of
                  the clemency offer, said Hillary Clinton has hurt her credibility. "I'm still
                  angry, and I've heard nothing to change my mind," Serrano said. "If that
                  campaign can be so insensitive to something that means so much to Puerto
                  Ricans, how sensitive can they be to issues that affect blacks in my
                  community? That affect Dominicans in my community? That affect
                  Mexicans moving into my community?"

                  Special correspondent Kari Lydersen in Chicago contributed to this

                               © 1999 The Washington Post Company