Oscar Lopez Rivera is a Puerto Rican Independista and political prisoner serving 70 years for seditious conspiracy. He is the only remaining Independista remaining behind bars, the other eleven were granted clemency by President Clinton. Just before leaving office in January of 2017, President Obama commuted Oscar's sentence.
Oscar López Rivera was born in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico on January 6, 1943. His family moved to the U.S. when he was nine years old. At the age of 14, he moved to Chicago to live with a sister. At age 18, he was drafted into the army and served in Vietnam and awarded the Bronze Star. When he returned to Illinois from the war in 1967, he found that drugs, unemployment, housing, health care and education in the Puerto Rican community had reached dire levels and set to work in community organizations to improve the quality of life for his people.
He was a well-respected community activist and an independence leader for many years prior to his arrest. Oscar worked in the creation of both the Puerto Rican High School and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. He was also involved in the struggle for bilingual education in public schools and to force universities to actively recruit Latino students, staff, and faculty. He worked on ending discrimination in public utilities like Illinois Bell, People’s Gas, and Commonwealth Edison.
Oscar was one of the founders of the Rafael Cancel Miranda High School, now known as the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School and the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center. He was a community organizer for the Northwest Community Organization (NCO), ASSPA, ASPIRA and the 1st Congregational Church of Chicago. He helped to found FREE, a half-way house for convicted drug addicts, and ALAS, an educational program for Latino prisoners at Stateville Prison in Illinois.
In 1975, Oscar was forced underground, along with other comrades. The FBI claimed that he was one of the leaders of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), a Puerto Rican nationalist clandestine group that fought for the independence of Puerto Rico. Oscar has neither confirmed nor denied his involvement in FALN and out of principle has refused to denounce armed struggle as a legitimate means to gaining independence.
On May 29, 1981 Oscar was captured in Chicago after five years underground. Oscar was found guilty on five counts involving seditious conspiracy, armed robbery, weapons violations and interstate transporation of stolen propert. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison.
Political Prisoner Status
At the time of their arrest, Lopez Rivera and the others declared themselves to be combatants in an anti-colonial war against the United States to liberate Puerto Rico from U.S. domination and invoked prisoner of war status. They argued that the U.S. courts did not have jurisdiction to try them as criminals and petitioned for their cases to be handed over to an international court that would determine their status. The U.S. Government, however, did not recognize their request.
The sentences received by Lopez Rivera and the other Nationalists were judged to be “out of proportion to the nationalists’ offenses.” Statistics showed their sentences were almost 20 times greater than sentences for similar offenses by the American population at large.
For many years, numerous national and international organizations criticized Lopez Rivera’ incarceration categorizing it as political imprisonment. His disproporionate sentence, the targeting of him and others by the FBI beforehand, the nebulous charges of conspiracy, the political nature of the charges made against Oscar, and the intentional isolation and long-term confinement he has endured all make it clear that Oscar Lopez Rivera is not simply a prisoner, but a political prisoner.
Life in Prison
From the moment Oscar was sentenced, he has spent his time in long-term solitary confinement in high security prisons far away from his family and support network. Amnesty International and the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Administration of Justice both criticized the conditions. The conditions were found to be in violation of the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. A federal judge also addressed his concerns in the case of Baraldine vs. Meese.
Attempted Prison Escape
In 1988, he was convicted of conspiracy to escape along with Jaime Delgado (a veteran independence leader), Dora Garcia (a prominent community activist), and Kojo Bomani Sababu (a New Afrikan Prisoner of War). He was given another 15 years for the attempted escape.
From 1986 to 1999 Oscar was held in the most maximum security prisons in the federal prison system, first in Marion and then the Administrative Maximum Unit at Florence, CO.
In Marion he refused to work for the federal prison industry, UNICOR, because the work involved producing coaxial cables for the military. He also helped launch a successful phone campaign from supporters to get guards at Florence to stop nightly rounds that were intentionally waking prisoners every 30 minutes, preventing them from sleeping through the night.
President Clinton Offers Clemency
In 1999, President Clinton offered clemency to eleven Puerto Rican political prisoners and a reduced sentence to Oscar. He refused the offer because in part of the agreement Rivera would have had to renounce armed struggle as a legitimate form of gaining independence for Puerto Rico.
Oscar’s Upcoming Parole Hearing
Oscar remains the last of the Puerto Rican nationalists in this case to remain in prison. Now 67, and just having lost his sister, the efforts for Oscar to be released on parole at his next hearing have been stepped up. The National Boricua Human Rights Network is gathering as many petition signatures and letters of support as possible in the lead up to the hearing. You can download the letter and help free Oscar now.