While many people of conscience in the United States are aware of the plight of political prisoners in countries around the world, Americans rarely hear about those locked up in the federal prisons of their own country.
Recently church leaders, human rights activists, and members of the Puerto Rican community joined in a campaign in support of the clemency petition of 15 Puerto Rican independentistas. The prisoners have been incarcerated for more than a decade because of their struggle for Puerto Rican independence. Although claimed as a possession by the United States, Puerto Rico is still recognized as a colony by the United Nations. The Puerto Rican people have never been consulted about their status since the United States took control of the island in 1898.
The 10 men and five women were arrested between 1980 and 1985 as part of a major federal offensive against the Puerto Rican independence movement. Convicted of sedition, conspiracy, and possession of illegal weapons, the Puerto Rican prisoners received sentences that averaged seven times longer than those of other violent criminalsthough none were ever charged with acts of violence that caused harm to a person or property.
"There is no other way to explain their sentences except as excessive, cruel, and inconsistent with the crimes that they were convicted of," said Nilda L. Pimentel, co-president of the group Community and Clergy United. Pimentel said that the Puerto Rican prisoners were made an example in order to discourage others from engaging in anti-colonial work.
"There has been strong support in the churches for the release of the prisoners for a long time, especially in Puerto Rico," said Rev. Eliezer Valentín-Castañón of the United Methodist Church. "It has become more visible now because of the support of churches and denominational offices in Washington, D.C. The churches have taken a position that the sentencing is clearly on political grounds, and not based on the actual charges."
A group of religious leaders recently wrote an open letter to President Clinton urging amnesty for the prisoners. "We pray for the release of our own political prisoners in the U.S., so that as a nation, we might practice at home what we preach abroad," wrote the group. "As people of faith, we are not united about the status of Puerto Rico, nor about the means employed by these 15 women and men in their quest for an independent Puerto Rico. However, we are united in our compassion and our commitment to their release."