5 Political Prisoners Obama Needs to Pardon Before He Leaves Office

With limited time in the White House, POTUS must protect human rights activists—and should start by pardoning these political prisoners.

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Complex Original

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Earlier this month, non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch issued a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to use his clemency power to address injustices in our criminal justice and immigration systems. “People are serving prison sentences today that both Congress and the President have called unfair,” Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, wrote. “President Obama has little time left in office, yet he still has an opportunity to take a giant leap toward remedying that injustice through commutations.”

With limited time left in the White House, the pressure's on POTUS to do as much good as he can before Trump's Legion of Doom threatens the civil liberties of many. Now more than ever, Obama must take a stand to protect human rights activists, radical revolutionaries, and those disproportionately punished by government. Here are five political prisoners that Obama needs to pardon before he leaves office:

Assata Shakur

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Black Panther activist Assata Shakur was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper. According to Shakur, she was pulled over by the New Jersey State Police, shot twice, and then charged with murder. She spent six and a half years in the maximum security wing of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey under what she calls “brutal circumstances” before escaping in 1979 and moving to Cuba in 1984. 

The FBI itself has admitted that COINTELPRO—a Counterintelligence Program launched in 1956 to disrupt Communist Party activity that was later expanded to include domestic groups like the Black Panther Party—was "rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons." The FBI has also admitted to enlisting the cooperation of local police departments to disrupt and "neutralize" the Black Panther Party. With micro- and macro-government vendettas against prominent black activists (which is still very much alive today), how could Shakur rely on the U.S. Department of Justice to give her a fair trial?​

She writes on her website that she’s a “20th century escaped slave”:

Because of  government persecution, I was left with no other choice than to flee from the political repression, racism and violence that dominate the US government's policy towards people of color. I am an ex political prisoner, and I have been living in exile in Cuba since 1984. I have been a political activist most of my life, and although the U.S. government has done everything in its power to criminalize me, I am not a criminal, nor have I ever been one. In the 1960s, I participated in various struggles: the black liberation movement, the student rights movement, and the movement to end the war in Vietnam. I joined the Black Panther Party. By 1969 the Black Panther Party had become the number one organization targeted by the FBI's COINTELPRO program. Because the Black Panther Party demanded the total liberation of black people, J. Edgar Hoover called it "greatest threat to the internal security of the country" and vowed to destroy it and its leaders and activists.

In 2015, musician Common was pulled from a commencement speech at Kean University because of police complaints against “A Song for Assata.” Also that year, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza wrote: “When I use Assata’s powerful demand in my organizing work, I always begin by sharing where it comes from, sharing about Assata’s significance to the Black Liberation Movement, what its political purpose and message is, and why it’s important in our context." Today, there’s even a Chicago-based collective of radical Black women called Assata’s Daughters.

Earlier this year, Obama said Cuba had agreed to “help resolve the cases of several U.S. fugitives living in Cuba,” including Shakur, the Independent reported.

Oscar López Rivera

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Oscar López Rivera has become the longest-held political prisoner in the history of Puerto Rico, after being sentenced to 70 years in prison in 1981. López Rivera was a Chicago-based activist fighting discrimination and police brutality in Puerto Rican communities in the ‘60s. He was not convicted of killing or harming anyone, but rather “seditious conspiracy”—plotting "against the U.S." to further Puerto Rican independence. In reality, López Rivera​ was fighting for the very American principle of no taxation without representation. Puerto Rico is neither a sovereign country nor the 51st state, so its people are U.S. citizens that could be drafted into the military—but can't even vote for president or Congress representatives.

In 1999, then-president Bill Clinton used his final days in office to grant a presidential pardon to 11 Puerto Rican independence fighters under the condition that they renounce violence, according to the Washington Post. López Rivera was offered a lesser deal that would have him released in a decade; he renounced violence but ultimately refused the deal because he said he had no faith in the U.S. government "sticking to its side of the bargain," the Guardian reported. According to the publication:

Two decades ago he and his fellow Puerto Rican independence fighters renounced violence and embraced peaceful political reform. The last year in which the militant group to which he belonged committed a violent act was 1983.

Yet López Rivera​ still sits in prison.

Prominent supporters of pardoning López Rivera include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former president Jimmy Carter, and Pulitzer Prize-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda, who confronted Obama about López Rivera face to face during a recent White House visit.

Mumia Abu-Jamal

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Leonard Peltier

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Leonard Peltier fought for Native American rights as a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM). According to Amnesty International, a 1975 confrontation involving AIM members left two FBI agents dead. Peltier was convicted of their murders, but has always maintained his innocence.

His case has long been "a flash point in the strained relations between federal law enforcement and Native Americans," according to Mother Jones. The FBI agents' deaths occurred on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, approximately 18 miles from Wounded Knee. Mother Jones reported:

In 1973, about 200 Sioux, led by members of the American Indian Movement, occupied Wounded Knee for 71 days to protest injustices against Native Americans and what they perceived as the corrupt leadership of the reservation's president. By the end of the standoff, two Native Americans had been killed, 12 were wounded, and 12 were "missing" but suspected of having been killed by tribal leadership, according to Peltier's petition.

The three years after the Wounded Knee occupation became known within Native American circles as the "Reign of Terror," a period during which dozens of Native Americans were murdered and hundreds were assaulted by a private militia that was aligned with Oglala Lakota Souix chairman Dick Wilson and known as the "GOON squad." 

There has been zero recourse for law enforcement responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Native Americans, and Amnesty International has said when it comes to Peltier, it “is concerned about the fairness of proceedings leading to his trial and conviction,” and calls on citizens to write to Obama to request clemency on humanitarian grounds. Peltier has exhausted all legal resources, spent 40 years in jail, and is in poor health. At 71 years old, Peltier suffers from diabetes and was recently diagnosed with an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

He is not eligible for parole again until 2024.

Chelsea Manning

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Military whistle-blower and democracy advocate Chelsea Manning (known as Bradley Manning until 2013) was a U.S. Army soldier who gave information to the public exposing unjust detainment of innocent people at Guantanamo Bay. 

According to her website, Manning revealed the following via WikiLeaks:

  • the Collateral Murder video that exposed the killing of unarmed civilians and two Reuters journalists by a US Apache helicopter crew in Iraq

  • the Afghan War Diary that revealed uninvestigated civilian casualties and contractor abuse

  • the Iraq War Logs that revealed civilian casualties, and uninvestigated reports of torture

  • the US diplomatic cables that revealed the role that corporate interests and spying play in international diplomacy

There is no evidence that anyone died as a result of Manning’s leaked information. For her actions revealing the U.S. government's crimes against humanity, Manning has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times—and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

And Manning’s abuse began even before her trial or sentencing. Though soldiers are promised fair treatment and a speedy trial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, PVT Manning was arrested in 2010 and “waited in pre-trial confinement for over three years before her trial finally began.” According to Manning’s website:

Additionally, during the first 10 months of her incarceration she was subjected to solitary confinement at the Quantico, Virginia, Marine Corps brig. During this time,  Manning was denied meaningful exercise, social interaction, sunlight, and on a number of occasions was forced to stay completely naked. Pre-trial punishment is clearly illegal under US military law, and these extreme conditions were unique to Manning. In March 2011, chief US State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley called Manning’s treatment “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.” Following his immediate resignation, he has stated that the prosecution’s heavy-handed persecution of Manning has undermined the government’s credibility.

Manning’s treatment caused an investigation by the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez. Mendez’s requests to visit Manning were repeatedly denied, and after 14 months of investigation, he issued a statement concluding Manning’s treatment was “cruel and inhuman.”

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