Most of the 14 Puerto Rican nationalists granted clemency by President Clinton left prison yesterday and prepared to return to their homeland after years behind bars.
Friends and relatives celebrated their releases from various prisons around the country, but few people saw a quick end to the political controversy the clemency has stirred. Both the House and Senate have scheduled hearings next week on Clinton's decision, and some Hispanic officials in New York say the episode has cooled their enthusiasm for Hillary Rodham Clinton's possible Senate campaign in that state.
The 14 were members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, known by its Spanish initials FALN, which sought independence for Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. FALN was responsible for more than 100 bombings in Chicago and elsewhere in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which left six dead and many injured. But none of the 14 was found to be directly responsible for the deaths or injuries.
Clinton on Aug. 11 offered them conditional clemency if they would renounce violence. He later said he was swayed in part by the long sentences most had served and by appeals made on their behalf by former president Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others.
Last night, several hundred members of Chicago's Puerto Rican community celebrated the release of the prisoners with music and speeches before ex-prisoner Ricardo Jimenez took the stage to wild cheers. Speaking in Spanish, Jimenez called for a "Puerto Rico libre" and said he would not stop the fight until Oscar Lopez Rivera and the other prisoners are free. He said Lopez Rivera was the last person he hugged before leaving prison, and that leaving him behind caused him the greatest pain.
Jimenez thanked the Chicagoans for campaigning for the prisoners' release. "There was not one day in all this time that you didn't fight for our liberty," he said.
Jose Lopez, who is the brother of Lopez Rivera and directs the Humboldt Park cultural center where the celebration was held, said the release made people "really happy. It's an incredible thing just to have them here with us and be able to see them and touch them."
Saying that the prisoners' situation is "ultimately about colonialism," Lopez added, "What Nelson Mandela is to South Africa, Ricardo Jimenez is to us."
Cook County Commissioner Roberto Maldonado, who is Puerto Rican and whose office is several blocks from the casita, also applauded the release but criticized the conditions. "I'm concerned that with all the conditions, they'll just try to throw them back in jail," Maldonado said. "They were convicted of seditious conspiracy; they were never convicted of terrorist acts. They shouldn't be labeled as terrorists."
Clinton offered clemency to 16 FALN members, but two turned him down. Of the 14 others, two already were out of prison, but the president's decision will soften the post-release conditions on them. Another will be eligible for release in a couple of years. The remaining 11 were scheduled for release yesterday.
"It's our opinion that this closes a major chapter in the effort to bring some reconciliation in this matter," said Manuel Mirabal, president of the Washington-based National Puerto Rican Coalition. "We believe it is a matter of justice. . . . Today, sentencing standards would never provide for the length of sentences that these individuals received."
The original sentences ranged from 35 to 90 years. Most of those released yesterday had spent more than a decade in prison.
Clinton's clemency decision triggered a national debate when several Republicans accused him of trying to curry favor for his wife among New York's Puerto Rican voters. They noted that Clinton had granted only three of 3,000 previous clemency requests. Clinton said politics played no role in his decision.
The first lady said last week that she felt the clemency offer should be withdrawn because the FALN members had not vowed to renounce violence. She later said she was not aware that her husband had set a Sept. 10 deadline for the members to accept the conditional offer.
"I haven't discussed other clemency issues with her, and I didn't think I should discuss this one," the president told reporters Thursday.
Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), a Puerto Rico native and supporter of the clemency offer, said Hillary Clinton has hurt her credibility. "I'm still angry, and I've heard nothing to change my mind," Serrano said. "If that campaign can be so insensitive to something that means so much to Puerto Ricans, how sensitive can they be to issues that affect blacks in my community? That affect Dominicans in my community? That affect Mexicans moving into my community?"
Special correspondent Kari Lydersen in Chicago contributed to this report.