by Harvey Wasserman
Barack Obama has taken his two daughters on a dramatic visit to the Robben Island cell once occupied by Nelson Mandela.
Let’s hope he takes them next to the one now occupied by Leonard Peltier.
Mandela was famously held by the apartheid South African government for 27 years. He became a global symbol, then president of his nation.
Mandela was charged, among other things, with attempting to overthrow a government, which he admitted.
For 37 years, Peltier has consistently denied the charges against him, which arose from a native American resistance action at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
His bitterly contested 1977 conviction in the killing of two FBI agents came in Fargo. Peltier has since been held under extremely harsh circumstances in a variety of US prisons. He has been denied a wide range of basic rights, been severely beaten, and can’t get much-needed medical care. Now in his late sixties, Leonard’s health has dangerously deteriorated.
As an indigenous activist, Peltier has been deemed a political prisoner by Amnesty International and numerous other human rights organizations.
Over the decades, a mountain of evidence has surfaced to back his case. His “trial” was a travesty of injustice. At least one of the judges who once denied his appeals for freedom has reversed his stance.
As president, Bill Clinton was thoroughly briefed on Leonard’s case. To his everlasting shame, he pardoned the financier Marc Rich (who has just died) but failed even to insure Leonard a fair trial. The government admits that for “national security” reasons it continues to hide large volumes of evidence from public scrutiny. (See Jeffrey St. Clair’s The Clintons and the Rich Women for a thorough account of the Rich pardon.)
Leonard’s continued incarceration is a slap at the native community, and all those who believe in due process of law. His presence over the decades has been distinguished by a legendary dignity and grace. Among the many writings and films he’s inspired, Peter Matthiessen’s IN THE SPIRIT OF CRAZY HORSE remains the mainstay tribute to a remarkably steadfast spirit.
President Obama’s silence on Leonard’s case casts a long shadow over his visit to Robben Island. Amidst his many tributes to Nelson Mandela, Obama seems to have overlooked—we hope temporarily—that Mandela himself has asked that Peltier be given justice.
So have the Dalai Lama, Bishop Desmond Tutu, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Parliaments of Europe, Italy and Belgium, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights and many more. Before he passed away three years ago, Judge Gerald W. Heaney of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed his previous opinion and joined those asking that Peltier be freed.
Most who support Peltier want his immediate release. Some ask that at very least he finally be granted a fair trial, with all the evidence made public. If the government insists on continuing to hold him in the interim, they ask he at least be moved near his Anishnabe and Dakota/Lakota people.
Leonard Peltier has been in jail so long he has grandchildren and great-grandchildren he has never seen.
Obama has said “the world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island, who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit.” He was, he said, “humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield.”
It’s time for the President to show similar courage in the case of Leonard Peltier.
Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and many others have already demanded no less.
You can write Leonard Peltier directly at #89637-132, USP Coleman 1, US Penitentiary, PO Box 1033, Coleman, FL 33521.