Skip to main content

Obama Commutes Sentences of Oscar Lopez Rivera and Chelsea Manning

1. Barack Obama has commuted the sentence of Oscar López Rivera, a victory for the Puerto Rican independence activist who is considered to be one of the world’s longest-serving political prisoners. 2. Chelsea Manning, the US army soldier who became one of the most prominent whistleblowers in modern times when she exposed the nature of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan is to be freed in May as a gift of outgoing president Barack Obama.

Protesters call for the release of Oscar Lopez Rivera in October outside of the White House.,Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

Obama Commutes Sentence for Political Prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera

Chelsea Manning: Majority of Prison Sentence Commuted by Barack Obama

1. Obama Commutes Sentence for Political Prisoner Oscare Lopez Rivera by Sam Levin

Barack Obama has commuted the sentence of Oscar López Rivera, a victory for the Puerto Rican independence activist who is considered to be one of the world’s longest-serving political prisoners.

In his final days in office, Obama has issued a record number of pardons and commutations, including granting the release of Chelsea Manning on Tuesday, the US army soldier who became one of the most famous whistleblowers in modern times.

López Rivera, whose commutation was announced on Tuesday along with those of 208 others, has been incarcerated for 35 years for his role in fighting for Puerto Rico’s independence.
The 74-year-old, who has spent more than half of his life behind bars, was convicted of “seditious conspiracy” for plotting against the US. The US government had also classified him as a terrorist.

If Obama had not intervened, he would have remained in captivity until 26 June 2023, five months after his 80th birthday.

Jan Susler, López Rivera’s lawyer, said the prisoner’s release is a huge win in the ongoing fight for Puerto Rican independence, adding that she was grateful that Obama understood  there wasn’t any legitimate reason to keep Oscar in prison.

“We have to celebrate every victory,” she said. “We have a lot of work left to do, and now Oscar will be able to join us, and we can work side by side.”

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Susler broke the news to López Rivera.

“He said, ‘Can you imagine a better birthday present for my daughter?’” Susler told the Guardian by phone, adding: “He’s a very centered, peaceful human being, and that’s how he received the news.”

In a recent interview with the Guardian, he said he still believes in what he described as the “noble cause” of full sovereignty for his Caribbean birthplace, which is classified as a US “territory”.

López Rivera was born in 1943 in San Sebastián in Puerto Rico, where he lived until his family moved to Chicago when he was 14 years old. He was later drafted to serve in the Vietnam war, and when he returned he became deeply involved in community activism among Puerto Ricans in Chicago.

López Rivera eventually became a member of a clandestine group called Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, which argued that armed force was a justified tactic in the fight for Puerto Rican independence.

US prosecutors accused the group of carrying out 140 bombings on military bases, government offices and financial buildings, but López Rivera has repeatedly denied involvement with fatal attacks.

The prisoner has repeatedly insisted that he was focused on actions that did not endanger people’s lives.

“For me, human life is sacred. We called it ‘armed propaganda’ – using targets to draw attention to our struggle,” he told the Guardian last year.

The group was dismantled in 1983, and López Rivera and his fellow Puerto Rican independence fighters eventually renounced violence and embraced peaceful reform tactics.
Asked about his decision to publicly renounce force, he said, “We realised other tactics to armed force could be more effective, mobilising people through peaceful campaigning. Morally, also, we came to see that we had to lead by example, that if we are advocating for a better world then there are things you cannot do. You cannot get a better world by being unjust yourself.”

In August of 1999, Bill Clinton used his final days in office to grant a pardon to 11 Puerto Rican independence fighters. López Rivera was offered a lesser deal that would have resulted in early release after a decade, but he turned it down because he said he did not believe the US government would stick to its side of the bargain, and he was upset offers were not made to fellow fighters.

“When I was in Vietnam I never left anyone behind. That’s not my practice, I couldn’t do it,” he told the Guardian last year.

Many prominent figures have aggressively lobbied for López Rivera’s pardon, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the governor of Puerto Rico, Alejandro García Padilla; the Hispanic caucus of the US Congress; former US president Jimmy Carter; former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders; and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the smash Broadway musical Hamilton

Miranda brought widespread attention to López Rivera’s case after confronting Obama during a White House visit.

“Sobbing with gratitude,” the performer tweeted on Tuesday. “OSCAR LOPEZ RIVERA IS COMING HOME.” Miranda also announced that he would play the role of Alexander Hamilton for a performance for López Rivera in the Chicago production.

Some have compared López Rivera to Nelson Mandela, labeling him the “Mandela of Puerto Rico”.

The commutation could have implications beyond López Rivera. Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro said last year he would seek the release of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez if the US agreed to release López Rivera.

US congressman Luis Gutiérrez celebrated Obama’s decision on Tuesday, saying in a statement, “I am overjoyed and overwhelmed with emotion. Oscar is a friend, a mentor, and family to me ... The long fight against colonialism in the Caribbean has had many chapters and we have all put violence behind us. Releasing Oscar Lopez Rivera back to his homeland and his people is a step towards peace and reconciliation and is being celebrated by Puerto Ricans of all political stripes, classes, colors and geographies.”

Obama has commuted the sentences of 1,385 individuals, more than any other US president. On a call with reporters, a White House official said more commutations are expected “most likely on Thursday”.



Chelsea Manning: Majority of Prison Sentence Commuted by Barack Obama

Chelsea Manning’s sentence was not due to end until 2045. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Chelsea Manning, the US army soldier who became one of the most prominent whistleblowers in modern times when she exposed the nature of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who then went on to pay the price with a 35-year military prison sentence, is to be freed in May as a gift of outgoing president Barack Obama.

In the most audacious – and contentious – commutation decision to come from Obama yet, the sitting president used his constitutional power just three days before he leaves the White House to give Manning her freedom.

Manning, a transgender woman, will walk from a male military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on 17 May, almost seven years to the day since she was arrested in a base outside Baghdad for offenses relating to the leaking of a vast trove of US state secrets to the website WikiLeaks.

Nancy Hollander, Manning’s lawyer, spoke to the Guardian before she had even had the chance to pass on to the soldier the news of her release. “Oh my God!” was Hollander’s instant response to the news which she had just heard from the White House counsel. “I cannot believe it – in 120 days she will be free and it will all be over. It’s incredible.”

Manning, 29, is a former intelligence analyst in Iraq who was sentenced in 2013 after a military court convicted her of passing more than 700,000 documents, videos, diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts to WikiLeaks. It was the biggest breach of classified material in US history.

In 2010, WikiLeaks worked with media organisations including the Guardian to publish material that offered unprecedented insight into the workings of US diplomacy. Among the files Manning leaked was a gunsight video of a US Apache helicopter firing on suspected Iraqi insurgents in 2007, killing a dozen people.

On a call with reporters, a White House official said repeatedly that the president believed Manning’s crimes were “serious” and “harmful to national security” but refused to label her a “traitor”.
Human rights groups welcomed Tuesday’s decision. Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said: “Chelsea Manning exposed serious abuses, and as a result her own human rights have been violated by the US government for years.
Margaret Huang, Amnesty International USA “President Obama was right to commute her sentence, but it is long overdue. It is unconscionable that she languished in prison for years while those allegedly implicated by the information she revealed still haven’t been brought to justice.”

But the commutation was condemned by leading Republicans. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate armed services committee, described it as a “grave mistake” that he fears “will encourage further acts of espionage and undermine military discipline. It also devalues the courage of real whistleblowers who have used proper channels to hold our government accountable.”

McCain added: “It is a sad, yet perhaps fitting commentary on President Obama’s failed national security policies that he would commute the sentence of an individual that endangered the lives of American troops, diplomats, and intelligence sources by leaking hundreds of thousands of sensitive government documents to WikiLeaks, a virulently anti-American organisation that was a tool of Russia’s recent interference in our elections.”

WikiLeaks last year published emails hacked from the accounts of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s election campaign. US intelligence agencies concluded that the hacking was authorised by senior figures in the Russian government and intended to sow chaos and harm Clinton’s chances against Donald Trump. Assange has denied receiving the material from Russia.

Paul Ryan, the House speaker, said: “This is just outrageous. Chelsea Manning’s treachery put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation’s most sensitive secrets. President Obama now leaves in place a dangerous precedent that those who compromise our national security won’t be held accountable for their crimes.”

Tom Cotton, a senator for Arkansas and a military veteran, said: “When I was leading soldiers in Afghanistan, Private Manning was undermining us by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. I don’t understand why the president would feel special compassion for someone who endangered the lives of our troops, diplomats, intelligence officers, and allies. We ought not treat a traitor like a martyr.”

Responding to Cotton, a White House official said it was worth considering that the Republican supported the presidency of “someone who publicly praised WikiLeaks” and who “encouraged a foreign government to hack his opponent”, in reference to Trump.

Obama’s surprise move also raises questions over the future of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London after claiming asylum. Two women in Sweden have accused him of rape and other sexual offences, which he denies.

In a tweet soon after Tuesday’s announcement, Assange thanked “everyone who campaigned for Chelsea Manning’s clemency. Your courage & determination made the impossible possible”.

He did not mention his earlier pledge that he would agree to US extradition if Obama granted clemency to Manning. But, Melinda Taylor, who serves on Assange’s legal team, said he would not be going back on his word. “Everything that he has said he’s standing by,” she told the Associated Press.

The White House insisted on Tuesday that Assange’s offer to submit to extradition if Obama “grants Manning clemency” did not influence the president’s action.

“The president’s decision to offer commutation was not influenced by public comments by Mr Assange or the WikiLeaks organization,” the White House official said on the call. “I have no insight into Mr Assange’s travel plans. I can’t speak to any charges or potential charges he may be facing from the justice department.”

Manning, who is a columnist for the Guardian, was the symbol of one of the harsher aspects of the Obama administration, as an official leaker who suffered under his approach a longer custodial than any other whistleblower of modern times. She was one of several leakers who were prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act – with more individuals falling foul to that anti-spying law than under all previous US presidents combined.

The soldier has experienced some very hard times while in military prison. In 2010 she was transferred from Iraq and Kuwait to the military brig at Quantico, Virginia, where she was put through prolonged solitary confinement.

Manning, formerly known as US army private first class Bradley Manning, revealed after being convicted of espionage that she identifies as a woman. She has said she was confronting gender dysphoria at the time of the leaks while deployed in Iraq.

She has endured recent challenges with her morale and mental health, having attempted suicide on at least one occasion last year. The US military responded to that attempt by punishing her with further solitary confinement. She was not due to be released until 2045.

Jay Brown, communications director of the Human Rights Campaign, America’s biggest LGBT civil rights organisation, said: “President Obama has a strong record regarding the humane treatment of prisoners and a long commitment to LGBTQ equality. The decision to commute Private Chelsea Manning’s remaining sentence – after she served nearly seven years for her crimes – reflects that record. We hope Private Manning soon can access the care and treatment that she, and every transgender person, deserves.”

Obama has commuted the sentences of 1,385 individuals, more than any other US president. The White House official said more commutations are expected “most likely on Thursday”.

The official said the president believed six years in prison was sufficient relative to sentences given to others who committed similar crimes.

“Manning is somebody who accepted responsibility for the crimes she committed,” the official said. “She has expressed remorse for those crimes.”

Earlier on Tuesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked if NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, currently living in Russia, could also be in line for a pardon. But Earnest argued that there are key differences between the two cases. “Chelsea Manning is somebody who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced for her crimes, and she acknowledged wrongdoing,” he said.

“Mr Snowden fled into the arms of an adversary and has sought refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy.”

Although the documents Manning provided to WikiLeaks were “damaging to national security”, Earnest said, those leaked by Snowden were “far more serious and far more dangerous”.

Snowden tweeted in response to the Manning decision: “In five more months, you will be free. Thank you for what you did for everyone, Chelsea. Stay strong a while longer! ... Let it be said here in earnest, with good heart: Thanks, Obama... To all who campaigned for clemency on Manning’s behalf these last hard years, thank you. You made this happen.”