This week I came across the interesting stories of two political prisoners. Both served as soldiers under separate American wars of intervention but subsequently, for different reasons, turned against the US government. Both were arrested, and their experiences provide insights into the downside of America’s much-vaunted claims to uphold human rights and its justice system.
The two men are Oscar Lopez Rivera, now 73, a Puerto-Rican American, and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, 45, a Mauritanian. Lopez Rivera was drafted into the US Army and served in the American war against Vietnam in the 1970s. Slahi joined Al Qaida in the 1990s when the mujahedeen fighters, led by Osama bin Laden, were harnessed by the US to help the Afghanistan opposition fight the Russian invasion of that country.
Let’s look at the Puerto Rican’s case first.
Lopez Rivera has been held in US federal prisons for 35 years – out of a 55-year sentence for his role in the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence by the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion National (FALN). Picked up in 1981 in Chicago, he was charged, and convicted, along with several others, with “seditious conspiracy” under a law first used after the US civil war in the mid-1800s. His unusually long prison term is odd, since the law requires a sentence of not more than 20 years. His two dozen co-accused have all been freed, whereas his prison term has even been extended to 70 years.
How and why did Lopez Rivera get into this situation? Here’s his brief history:
Puerto Rico, along with the Philippines, was for a long time a Spanish colony. After the US provoked a war with Spain with the intent of seizing the latter’s colonial holdings, Spain ceded the tiny country to America. It has since remained in “constitutional limbo,” according to the Guardian, because it is neither a sovereign state nor one of the states of the US. The Puerto Ricans are treated as American citizens – but they are not allowed to vote in any election.
Lopez Rivera’s family moved to Chicago when he was 14 years old. Drafted into the US Army, he was sent to Vietnam. What he saw and experienced there changed his outlook and his life. He had thought their mission was to free the Vietnamese people, but instead realized that it wasn’t so. Thus when he returned to Chicago (with a Bronze Star for “meritorious service” for forcing villagers from their homes and farms into cramped hamlets for population control), he “felt an obligation to change,” having seen “what colonialism did to people.”
He went headlong into community organizing among his fellow Puerto Ricans, and became a member of the FALN, organized in 1974. The US authorities blamed the FALN for some 140 bombing attacks on military bases and government offices across the US. While denying direct involvement in the bombings, Lopez Rivera justified them: “I believe we were adhering to international law that says that colonialism is a crime against humanity,” he declared, “and that colonial people have a right to achieve self-determination by any means, including force.”
He called the seditious-conspiracy charge an “impossible crime.” How could he have committed sedition, he argued, when Puerto Ricans were never allowed the right to vote in America’s elections, and thus have a say in their governance? He refused to recognize the US judicial process and didn’t present any defense argument. His refusal to bow to US authority even led to a scheme that implicated him in an alleged plan to escape, which he vehemently denied. Yet for that alleged plan he was placed in solitary confinement for 12 years in a 6-feet-by-9-feet cell without a view of the sky.
Protesting the blatant injustice done to him, supporters of Lopez Rivera have launched an international campaign for his immediate release, urging President Obama to pardon him before leaving office at the end of 2016. The campaign is led by South Africa’s Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former US President Jimmy Carter, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Hispanic Caucus of the US Congress, and the governor of Puerto Rico, among others. Last October 9, reports the Guardian, thousands rallied outside the White House calling on Obama to free him.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi, on the other hand, is now a free man. After 13 years of detention at Guantanamo Bay US military prison in Cuba, the Pentagon has announced it had repatriated him last Monday to Mauritania. Basically, though, the reason is that his repatriation relieves the US of continuing international embarrassment after Slahi’s book, “Guantanamo Diary,” graphically describing his torture, became an international bestseller in 2015.
In his book, manuscripts of which had been smuggled out of prison by his lawyers, Slahi details the torture he suffered in 2003 under methods approved by then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He describes how he was subjected to sleep deprivation, beatings, dousing with ice water and being shackled in a freezing cell for several days.
All through his detention he was not charged with any crime, since his interrogators were unable to link him to the al Qaida attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. The Pentagon further cited as ground for freeing Slahi “the extensive support network available to the detainee from multiple sources, including strong family connections, and [Slahi’s] robust and realistic plan for the future.” His wish now is to start a business and write books.
Obviously in these two cases, the US has overstepped the boundaries of due process and respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. Not only Slahi, but even more meritoriously Lopez Rivera, should have been freed – and freed a long time ago.
While declaring he does not believe in wishful thinking, the Puerto Rican patriot told a journalist who interviewed him by phone (he was not allowed visitors): “I have no choice but to be optimistic [about being freed]. Hope: that is one thing we can never lose.”
* * *