ORLANDO, Fla.-“Oscar Lopez’s only crime is the love of the Puerto Rican people and their struggle against colonialism, which Puerto Rico has been subjected to since the 1898 invasion by U.S. military forces,” said Debbe Ryan, of the Central Florida chapter of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights
Ryan spoke Apr. 26 at the kick-off meeting of the Orlando chapter of the National Boricua Human Rights Network, the group’s first chapter in the South. The NBHRN works for the decontamination of former U.S. Navy facilities on the island of Vieques, the release of all Puerto Rican political prisoners, and an end to political repression and criminalization of progressive forces within the Puerto Rican community.
The primary focus was building support for freedom for Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera, who has spent 31 years in federal institutions. The NBHRN has started a month-long campaign to bring attention to Lopez’s case, including letter writing and a multi-media exhibit.
Lopez, an advocate of Puerto Rican independence, is the longest-held political prisoner in the history of the island, although there are prisoners from the Black and Native American liberation movements, such as Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox , and Leonard Peltier , who have been incarcerated longer.
Lopez, 69, is in poor health and in the past has been denied proper medical care by federal authorities. He also has been refused permission to attend his mother and sister’s funerals. While incarcerated Lopez has run educational programs for other prisoners out of his cell and has become an accomplished artist.
Lopez’s only hope for freedom lies in a pardon from President Obama. His release enjoys wide support in Puerto Rico, far beyond the pro-independence sector of public opinion, from the Senate and House, the Bar Association, former governors, unions, religious denominations, and community activists, among other sectors. Lopez also has growing support among sectors of the Latino and Puerto Rican communities in the U.S.
Another advocate for Puerto Rican indepencence, Luis Rosa was in federal prison from 1980 to 1999, when he and nine other independentistas received clemency from then-President Bill Clinton.
Although Lopez also was offered clemency, he refused it because it did not include fellow nationalists Carlos Alberto Torres and Haydee Beltran, and because of the stipulations imposed, including making Lopez serve an additional 10 years without any infractions of prison rules.
“Imagine this, you’re nine years, 11 months, 20 days into that 10-year sentence, and a guard comes in there, puts a knife in the cell, and writes you [up for] a shot [infraction],” said Rosa.
A similar situation occurred with Carlos Alberto Torres, said Rosa. He came up for a parole hearing after 30 years, only to be moved to a six-man cell days before the hearing. Torres subsequently had his parole denied when three knives found in the cell were falsely claimed to be his. Torres only won his release in 2010 after a concerted campaign by supporters and human rights activists.
At his first federal parole hearing, Lopez was denied the right to call witnesses and to have legal observers and family members present, while the government called 11 witnesses who sought to implicate Lopez in acts in which he was not involved. His next parole hearing will not be until 2027, when he will be 84.
Lopez, born in San Sebastian, P.R., moved to Chicago when he was a teenager. In the 1960s he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star. After he returned home, he became a community activist, working on issues of poverty, discrimination, education, and police brutality in Chicago’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods.
According to the NBHRN, Lopez “was arrested in 1981, accused of being a member of a clandestine force seeking independence for Puerto Rico, and sentenced to 55 years for seditious conspiracy. He was not accused or convicted of causing harm or taking a life.
“In 1988, as the result of a government-made conspiracy to escape, he was given an additional 15 years, a sentence which will begin only after he has finished serving the 55-year sentence.”
The federal seditious conspiracy statute under which Lopez was convicted was developed during the Civil War to punish Confederate leaders, and otherwise has only been used against Puerto Rican nationalists, in 1952 and 1981.
“From 1986 to 1998, he was held in the most super maximum security prisons in the federal prison system,” says the NBHRN, “in conditions not unlike those at Guantanamo under which ‘enemy combatants,’ are held, conditions which the International Red Cross, among other human rights organizations, have called tantamount to torture.”
The 12 years that Lopez, currently held at a federal facility in Terre Haute, Ind., spent in solitary were meant “to break his spirit, and to actually make him crazy or suicidal,” said Rosa.
In Chicago, the NBHRN, along with Batey Urbano and the Latino Coalition, launched “31 Days for 31 Years,” a multimedia and interactive exhibit for Lopez’s release.
Letters of support only (no money or printed materials) may be sent to Oscar Lopez Rivera:
Oscar Lopez Rivera # 87651-024
FCI Terre HauteP.O. Box 33
Terre Haute, Ind. 47808
Photo: Oscar Lopez-Rivera (AP)