Puerto Rican Inmates Find Clemency Offer Unattractive : Law: Fifteen convicted in independence movement cite intolerable restrictions. Fate has become public battle.


Elizam Escobar has spent 19 years in what he calls the “living death” of prison, locked away for his part in a clandestine Puerto Rican independence group the U.S. government once branded as terrorists.

Now the opportunity for freedom presents itself, in the form of a single sheet of paper, an offer of clemency with conditions from President Clinton. Escobar’s signature would allow him to walk free, past the rows of razor wire at the federal penitentiary here, and out a door that opens to the red Oklahoma plains.

The clemency offer has sparked outrage from a variety of administration critics, who charge Clinton with going soft on terrorism. But as the criticism mounts, Escobar himself says he is not likely to sign the document, and neither are many of his companions, 15 men and women scattered in federal prisons from Pennsylvania to California.


“It’s another test of fire,” Escobar, 51, said during a two-hour interview this week in a prison conference room. “After 20 years, any offer of [freedom] is a temptation. But we’re here for the struggle of independence of Puerto Rico. That is our primary concern.”

What happens next hinges on the conditions attached to the clemency. The prisoners argue that they would be prevented by parole officials from associating with one another and restricted in their rights to travel. Their backers in Puerto Rico are calling for their unconditional release.

Escobar called the conditions “humiliating.” His response, echoed by the inmates’ supporters and by their Chicago lawyer, may prolong the controversy indefinitely.

“It might happen, it might not happen,” Escobar said of his release. He appears willing to serve out the 15 years left on his sentence rather than accept what he calls the “muzzle” the administration is offering.

“I might have to wait until 2014, and I have no idea what the situation will be like then,” he said with a quiet laugh. “When you take a position of principle, you have to be willing to accept the consequences.”

‘The Only Crime Here Is Colonialism’

To speak to Escobar is to step back to an era in American history that, though only a generation off, seems distant in its rhetoric and tone. Sometimes he slips into the national liberation jargon of the late 1970s, comparing Puerto Rico to Northern Ireland and Palestine. He says the 1898 treaty that ended the Spanish-American War and ceded Puerto Rico to the United States is illegal. “The only crime here is colonialism,” he said.


The 15 prisoners, and one other not offered clemency, have been behind bars since 1980, when they were captured in Illinois and convicted of “seditious conspiracy” and various weapons charges. Prosecutors said they were members of the pro-independence Armed Forces of National Liberation (known by its Spanish acronym, FALN), which had claimed credit for more than 100 bombings, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, that claimed six lives.

The group has been inactive since the early 1980s, while the pro-independence effort remains a minority movement.

“I lament, profoundly, every person who has been injured, regardless of their position,” Escobar said. “We had a high respect for life and always took measures in that direction.”

In recent years, the inmates have become a cause celebre in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, with figures like former President Jimmy Carter, the South African cleric Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King and New York Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor calling for their release on the grounds that their sentences are excessive. The fact that the activists were charged, primarily, with an intellectual crime--they were never linked to any specific acts of bloodshed--helped spur the international campaign.

On Aug. 11, after hearing conflicting views within the administration, President Clinton offered to wipe out most of their remaining sentences. Since then, their fate has become a public battle of words waged in news conferences in New York City and Washington, and in protests in the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan, where 100,000 people marched Sunday demanding their unconditional release.

Public Battle Waged Over Prisoners’ Fate

On Tuesday, Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) said he would introduce a congressional resolution denouncing Clinton’s offer and calling for hearings on the issue.


And, in a turn that baffles Escobar, the clemency offer seems likely to become an issue in the race between the two presumptive candidates for U.S. Senate in New York, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who called on Clinton to revoke the clemency offer.

This week, the American Conservative Union is broadcasting 60-second commercials on cable television in the Skaneateles, N.Y., area, where the Clintons are vacationing, calling on the first lady to “tell the president that pardoning terrorists is wrong.”

New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir has declared himself “vehemently opposed” to clemency. A former New York police detective blinded by an FALN bomb in 1982, Rich Pastorella, stepped forward to accuse Clinton of “pandering” to the large pool of Puerto Rican voters in New York.

Escobar has watched much of this unfold on one of the four television sets shared by the 200 inmates in his cellblock.

“All of a sudden we are very visible in prison, but we are being used by the politicians for their purposes,” said Escobar, an articulate man with the soft-spoken demeanor of the art teacher he once was.

“It’s a cliche, but one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter,” Escobar added. “We are closer to the traditions of the American Revolution than any of


these politicians.”

Before joining what he calls “the clandestine movement,” Escobar was a Puerto Rican-born artist who taught art classes in New York City. His son, 5 years old at the time of his arrest, is now a 24-year-old college graduate.

Most of the prisoners are university-educated Puerto Ricans who, at one time in their lives, have dabbled in poetry and the arts. Some were in graduate school when they were imprisoned. Escobar and most of the other activists refused to participate in their 1981 trials, declaring themselves “prisoners of war” and demanding a hearing before an international tribunal.

“How can I be accused of seditious conspiracy?” Escobar said of the main charge against him, a crime rarely invoked in American history. “How can I be a traitor when I’m fighting for the freedom of my country?”

According to attorney Jan Susler, who is representing the prisoners, what her clients find objectionable in the Clinton offer is not the condition that requires them to renounce violence--she said they did that three years ago in a letter to Congress.

Instead, the inmates object to a provision that would impose strict conditions of parole, including travel limitations. Also, two of those offered clemency would have to serve an additional five and 10 years in prison each. (The administration offered no clemency at all to one of the prisoners.)

“Many people have said they feel the conditions are insulting and the fact that they did not apply equally to all the prisoners is insulting,” Susler said. “That being said, it will be the prisoners who decide.”


Inmates Seek to Make Collective Response

After the offer was made, Susler was allowed to conduct a conference call recently with all the inmates, the first time they had spoken to each other in two decades.

“It was quite historic and very moving,” Susler said. “They see this in a very similar way. They want to work to make one, collective response to this offer.” Susler said she will spend the next few weeks traveling to 10 different prisons to discuss the offer with each inmate.

The decision will not be an easy one, said East Harlem attorney Gloria Quinones, a childhood friend of inmate Dylcia Pagan.

“She feels torn between her political beliefs and that desire to be free, even if it’s just for one day, for one breath of freedom,” said Quinones. “They probably feel like they’d be letting the Puerto Rican people down by accepting such an offer.”

Escobar too said he would find it painful to turn down freedom. “I feel like a fish out of water here,” he said.

Still, Escobar added: “When I was arrested, I knew it was going to be for a long time. I understood then that I might never get out of prison. And I still feel that way.”


Times staff writer Margaret Ramirez also contributed to this report.