In his remaining days in office, President Obama has the opportunity to bring some measure of justice to wrongfully-imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier.
Peltier has been languishing in prison for over 40 years, following his conviction for murdering two FBI agents during a shootout between law enforcement officers and Lakota Indians on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975.
Peltier is a political prisoner --- one whose arrest, conviction and lengthy incarceration was determined not so much by the facts of the case but by Peltier's activism in the American Indian Movement and the government's desire to suppress a rebellion among Native Americans in the 1970s.
The entire process by which Peltier was arrested and tried was fraught with problems. Witness affidavits supporting Peltier's extradition from Canada (where he fled after the shootout) prior to his arrest were gained through coercion; during the trial the government withheld key documents, such as ballistics information, that could have aided the defense; witnesses who testified for the prosecution later recanted and said the FBI had pressured them to implicate Peltier.
While Peltier was unsuccessful in an appeal of his conviction, the presiding judge in the appeals hearing, Gerald Heaney, harshly criticized the prosecution for the FBI's "improper conduct" and "clear abuse of the investigative process," according to a report by the Center for Constitutional Rights.
It's also noteworthy, that during the appeals hearing, the government admitted that they couldn't prove who actually shot the agents. But the prosecutors still maintained that Peltier was linked to the murders and therefore was guilty.
The idea that someone could be convicted and sent to prison for so many years --- based on such a shaky prosecution case, rife with so many legal problems, is an outrage.
It is not the kind of thing that is supposed to happen in a democratic republic, with a system that on paper at least is supposed to provide "liberty and justice for all." The Peltier case is more befitting of what happens in a dictatorship.
Obama has a chance to end this outrage by granting Peltier's request for clemency. The Native activist has gotten wide support for his plea --- from human rights groups like Amnesty International to Bishop Desmond Tutu to thousands of people signing petitions. And just last week, Peltier got unexpected support from one of the prosecutors in the original case. Former U.S. Attorney James Reynolds told The Guardian newspaper that it was time for the government to "call it quits" and grant leniency to Peltier.
In addition to the facts of the case and the wide support Peltier has received, Obama should also consider Peltier's age and his declining health. Now 72, Peltier has suffered a stroke and battled diabetes and a heart condition.
This is not the first time Peltier has sought clemency. In 2000, former President Bill Clinton weighed his request for leniency, but ultimately denied it after members of the FBI Agents Association mounted a furious opposition campaign and picketed the White House.
The FBI group --- composed of former agents of the federal agency --- are again opposing Peltier's petition.
Hopefully President Obama will see the light on this case and not back down. A good sign is that Obama has recently been granting leniency for hundreds of other long-time prisoners --- offenders who were serving excessively long terms for drug convictions.
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