NEW YORK — As President Barack Obama’s final term in office draws to a close, supporters of imprisoned American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier are escalating their demands for his release through executive clemency.
“Since Obama will be in office less than a year, in the coming months, Leonard’s supporters plan to work as hard as possible to get the president’s attention and ask for clemency,” Maggie Tobin, a member of NYC Free Peltier, told MintPress News.
Peltier, a member of the Anishinabe, Dakota, and Lakota nations, has been imprisoned by the United States since his extradition from Canada in 1976.
In 1977, a federal court convicted him of two counts of first degree murder in the deaths of two FBI agents in a shootout on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975.
The clash followed AIM’s occupation of the Pine Ridge town of Wounded Knee, the site of an 1890 massacre by the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment, in 1973.
Lakota elders had invited AIM onto the reservation in response to repression from a tribal government supportive of uranium mining in the area. After the 1973 occupation, more than 60 residents had been killed, many allegedly by the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or “GOONS,” a tribal paramilitary that received both weapons and intelligence on AIM activists from the FBI.
Peltier’s prosecution was marked by numerous irregularities. Myrtle Poor Bear, whose affidavits the FBI used to secure Peltier’s extradition, later recanted her testimony, including claims that she had been Peltier’s girlfriend, saying she had never met him and her signature had been coerced.
Similarly, multiple witnesses at the trial later said the FBI had used threats to force them to testify. Nevertheless, none of them identified Peltier as the shooter.
After a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit revealed that U.S. Attorneys had withheld over 140,000 pages of evidence, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled: “There is a possibility that the jury would have acquitted Leonard Peltier had the records and data improperly withheld from the defense been available to him in order to better exploit and reinforce the inconsistencies casting strong doubts upon the government’s case.”
But it refused to grant his request for a new trial.
‘This might be the last chance we have’
Since 1976, supporters ranging from Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights to Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama have called for Peltier’s release.
Now, at 71 years old and in his 40th year of imprisonment, many consider Peltier one of the world’s longest held political prisoners.
In December 2000, thousands rallied outside the United Nations in New York, calling for then-outgoing President Bill Clinton to grant Peltier executive clemency.
Instead, Clinton used his final hours in office to sign pardons for figures like fugitive Marc Rich, an operative for Israel’s Mossad spy agency wanted by the U.S. on charges including racketeering, tax evasion and wire fraud. Rich’s wife Denise had donated more than $1 million to Democrats during the Clinton administration, including Hillary Clinton’s first Senate campaign months earlier, as well as $450,000 to the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.
With Peltier facing multiple health issues — most recently an abdominal aortic aneurysm diagnosed in January, many fear any further delays in his release could effectively sentence him to death behind bars.
“Leonard’s health, as with so many in prison, has been poor for years: diabetes, high blood pressure, a stroke a few years ago,” Tobin, of NYC Free Peltier, said. “Now there is a crisis.”
Peltier’s “health is rapidly deteriorating,” Percy Lujan told MintPress.
Lujan, a student organizer based in New York, worked with a national coalition of student groups to hold a national day of action to free Peltier on Feb. 27.
“The federal government insists on keeping him locked up in a maximum security prison,” he said. “This year might be the last chance we have to get clemency for Peltier.”
‘My last hope for freedom’
On Feb. 6, 40 years after Peltier’s capture in Canada, NYC Free Peltier and other local groups launched a year of actions for Peltier’s freedom with a gathering inside the 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East hall.
The event, part of a international day of solidarity coordinated by the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, drew hundreds of supporters from black, Puerto Rican, Palestinian, and other local organizations.
As the year presses onward, and the end of Obama’s second term draws perilously close, supporters are sending thousands of postcards to the White House.
On the sixth of each month, social media users flood their Twitter timelines, as well as White House telephones and email accounts, with appeals for Peltier’s freedom.
Starting July 13, Peltier’s son Chauncey, a retired construction worker and motorcycle enthusiast, will lead a 10-day, cross-country “Freedom Ride” from Banks, Oregon, culminating in a rally in Washington, D.C.
And as university classes resume in the fall, many campuses will host activities to raise awareness about Peltier and build pressure for his release.
“As the last remaining months of President Obama’s term pass by, my anxiety increases,” Peltier wrote in a message to his supporters on June 26.
“I believe that this President is my last hope for freedom, and I will surely die here if I am not released by January 20, 2017. So I ask you all again, as this is the most crucial time in the campaign to gain my freedom, please continue to organize public support for my release, and always follow the lead of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.”
While organized activities are helpful, Tobin said, individual supporters can also take action themselves.
“What everyone everywhere can and should do is continue to contact the White House,” she said. “Phone, email, and tweet the White House, comment on the president’s Facebook page – do that often. But above all, write letters. Signing petitions and form letters is helpful, but writing your own personal, heartfelt letter is one of the best ways to help.”
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