Twelve Puerto Rican militants imprisoned as members of a violent independence movement yesterday accepted President Clinton's offer of conditional clemency, an initiative that sparked heated opposition, even from Hillary Rodham Clinton.
By accepting clemency, the prisoners have agreed to obey several conditions: that they renounce the use of violence for any purpose and accept restrictions on their travel and their right of free association. They will also be subject to the same restrictions placed on any paroled felon.
The 12 were part of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (the FALN, in Spanish), which set off more than 100 bombs in New York and Chicago in the 1970s and early 1980s to press for Puerto Rican independence from the United States. Though at least six people were killed and scores more wounded in those attacks, none of those offered clemency was convicted of a specific deadly or injurious act. They were convicted of weapons possession and seditious conspiracy.
Clinton's Aug. 11 clemency offer, which is set to expire Friday, has mushroomed into a contentious political issue, in part because of his wife's prospective Senate campaign in New York next year.
Opponents of the clemency, especially law enforcement personnel injured in FALN attacks, criticized Clinton for sending a signal of leniency toward terrorism and of trying to gain support for his wife among members of New York's Puerto Rican community.
But supporters of the clemencies, including former president Jimmy Carter and South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, have framed the issue in human rights terms and argued that the FALN members' sentences were disproportionate to their crimes. The prisoners received sentences of between 35 and 90 years; more than drug dealers, for instance, or even convicted murderers. Most have already served 19 years.
"This is not about who will be the next senator in New York," Jan Susler, attorney for the detainees, said at a Chicago news conference. "These people went to prison for the same thing that Nelson Mandela went to prison for," she said, referring to the decades of imprisonment that preceded Mandela's elevation as South Africa's first democratically elected president.
Clinton's offer applied to 16 FALN members, most of whom are still in prison. From separate federal prisons all over the country, 12 have accepted clemency. Virtually all of them say they will return to Puerto Rico upon their release, for which a date has not been announced, according to Susler. Two have declined clemency because of objections to its conditions. The remaining two have until Friday to decide.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton came under continuing criticism from Latino leaders in New York over her announcement Saturday that she opposed her husband's clemency offer. Her position put her on the same side as New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R), her likely rival in the Senate race, and sparked an uproar in the politically potent Hispanic community.
Mrs. Clinton called the offer a "mistake" and said the absence of a response from the prisoners, especially on the renunciation of violence, "speaks volumes." (A press release dated Sept. 2 and issued by the detainees' lawyer said they had indeed agreed to renounce violence.)
Mrs. Clinton's move came a day after White House lawyers had set the Sept. 10 deadline for the FALN to respond.
Latino leaders here expressed outrage at Mrs. Clinton's stand, calling it premature and suggesting she took it to counter claims that the administration was pandering to their community. On Labor Day, she tried to assuage their concerns through strategic telephone calls, but that did not appear to lessen the outrage.
Both Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx borough president, and Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.), confirmed today that they spoke to Mrs. Clinton Monday. Neither, however, would characterize her side of the conversation. But Ferrer said, "I told her she made a huge mistake."
Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), who threatened over the weekend to withhold his campaign support from Clinton and reaffirmed that statement today, said he received no phone call Monday. "They are not calling me," he said.
At a Manhattan news conference, Serrano, Velazquez, Ferrer and 11 other Latino elected officials criticized Mrs. Clinton for playing politics with an issue that is near and dear to Latino politicians and should have been beyond political point-scoring. All of these leaders are Democrats and would be hard-pressed to support Giuliani's Senate campaign. But they made their displeasure at Mrs. Clinton well known nonetheless.
"Our issue is we are supporting the release," Rep. Carmen Arroyo, a New York State Assembly member, said as emotion rose in her voice. "We are commending the president. Who cares about Hillary Clinton now?"
"Or for that matter, Rudolph Giuliani," said Ferrer.
"We want to see the prisoners free," Arroyo said.
Despite this political dust-up, Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton's exploratory Senate committee, characterized the angered Latino leaders as "friends" of Mrs. Clinton's.
"Hillary Clinton understands that her friends feel very strongly about this issue," Wolfson said. "But she stands by her [Saturday] statement."
Duke reported from New York and Claiborne reported from Chicago.
CAPTION: Jose Torres, left, aided by attorney Jan Susler, is father of prisoner who agreed to U.S. terms.