Five generations of Leonard Peltier’s family made a strong presence at a hearing in Fargo, N.D., June 15, challenging the federal court’s jurisdiction in putting the Native American activist behind bars.

“We want Leonard home, it’s been too long,” said Peltier’s sister Julie. Before the hearing, Paul Schultz, a tribal elder from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, told a rally outside the courthouse, “Today we stand here in solidarity. One of our brothers is still in the iron house.”

Peltier is serving two consecutive life terms for the alleged killings of two FBI agents during a June 26, 1975, firefight on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, in which Joe Stuntz Kills-right, a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), and the two FBI agents lost their lives.

There was never any investigation into the killing of Kills-right, or of the 60 Native people killed between 1973 and 1976 by vigilantes hired by the tribal chairman to rid the reservation of AIM activity. Peltier was a member of AIM, an indigenous organization established in 1968 to support Native traditional values. AIM, along with the Black Panthers and other organizations, was targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO “counterintelligence” program.

During the two-hour hearing, Peltier’s attorney, Barry Bacharach, presented a motion arguing that the court lacks jurisdiction over acts committed on Indian reservations. Special prosecutor Lynn Crooks, who stated at Peltier’s 1993 appellate hearing, “We do not know who shot the agents,” termed the motion frivolous and called for its dismissal. Federal Judge Ralph Erickson is expected to issue a decision shortly.

Russ Redner, Leonard Peltier Defense Committee director, said the hearing is “not just about Leonard. All the laws affecting our people are being put into question to keep him in prison, to suppress all of us, a continuation of the genocidal policies that gave rise to this country.”

Meanwhile, Peltier’s attorneys are appealing a recent ruling upholding the government’s right to withhold what could be an explosive document. The ruling was on a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, demanding the FBI release a document they say could lead to a new trial for Peltier.

Peltier’s attorneys say the 15 pages withheld by the FBI contain a 1975 teletype message from FBI’s Buffalo office to then FBI Director Clarence Kelley suggesting that an FBI member may have been trying to infiltrate Peltier’s defense team.

In March, a judge upheld the government’s claim of exemption from FOIA requirements.

Peltier’s attorney in that case, Michael Kuzma, said the judge sidestepped the issue of the FBI’s “war on the American Indian Movement.” That issue is key, Kuzma said, “because FOIA exemptions cannot be used to shield illegal or unauthorized investigative tactics.”

Most of the Buffalo documents are over 25 years old. Documents are supposed to be automatically declassified after 25 years under an executive order issued by President Clinton. The government is resisting efforts to release these files on grounds of national security.

At the time of Peltier’s original 1977 trial, the government turned over roughly 3,500 pages of material to defense attorneys, claiming this was all it had. In the early 1980s, after Peltier’s attorneys filed an FOIA request, it was discovered that the FBI actually maintained 18,000 pages relating to the case. Of those, 12,000 were released. The government continued to withhold 6,000.

According to Peltier’s defense committee, the released pages contained ballistics tests that failed to conclusively link Peltier to the FBI agents’ slayings. Nevertheless, at Peltier’s trial an FBI ballistics expert testified to such a link.

By 2004, it had been discovered that the FBI actually has 142,579 pages of unreleased material on the case. Its Minneapolis office alone has 90,000 pages.

Peltier supporters say FBI files were released only because of grassroots lobbying efforts. They urge further lobbying to release all remaining documents.

Petitions asking Congress to include Peltier’s case in its investigation of FBI misconduct can be found at www.freepeltier.org. A petition for parole is at //campaign-pyramid.com/kola/leonard/.

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