FALN prisoners another step closer to freedom
Clinton condemned on Capitol Hill for clemency
September 9, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House gave final approval Thursday to the Bureau of Prisons for the release of 11 members of a militant Puerto Rican nationalist group who agreed to renounce violence in return for clemency from President Clinton. The release of the prisoners could begin as early as Friday night.
Another prisoner who accepted clemency still must serve five more years at a federal prison in Florida before he is eligible for release.
The president offered clemency to a total of 16 convicted Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) members. Two rejected the offer, while two others -- who are already out of prison, but would have their fines reduced as part of the deal -- have yet to respond and must do so by 5 p.m. EDT Friday.
Granting clemency is a presidential prerogative that cannot be overruled by Congress, but lawmakers formally criticized President Clinton on Thursday for being soft on terrorism.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted 311-41 against Clinton's clemency offer. Ninety-three Democrats voted against the president.
The Senate will vote on a similar resolution on Monday. A draft text condemns the president for a "deplorable concession to terrorists" that has "undermined national security."
"There is a feeling of outrage in this country against this action," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) said lawmakers had an obligation to vote for the resolution condemning Clinton's action.
"... When he elevates terrorists over other people who may well deserve pardons much more, or having their sentence cut much more, he has abused his power and abused his office," Sessions said.
"And it is a duty, the responsibility of this Congress to do the only thing we can. And that is to adopt a resolution that speaks clearly that we don't accept it," said the Southern senator.
New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler said the resolution was a "travesty" and it interferes in the criminal justice system.
"Why is this being rushed through? To embarrass the president and the first lady, who is considering running for the Senate in New York," Nadler said.
The White House faces a continued political uproar next week when two Senate committees and one in the lower chamber plan to hold hearings on the clemency offer.
Leading Democrats, such as presidential candidate Bill Bradley, opposed the clemency offer -- as did Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose New York Senate seat Hillary Rodham Clinton hopes to win.
Many critics accused Clinton of taking the action to help his wife gain support among New York's Puerto Rican and larger Hispanic community.
The controversy then took an even more dramatic turn over the weekend when the first lady said the offer should be rescinded -- comments that drew criticism of her from leading New York Hispanic politicians.
Speaking to reporters on the White House lawn Thursday afternoon, the president stood by his decision to free the prisoners.
"None of them were convicted of doing bodily harm to anyone. And they had all served sentences that were considerably longer than they would serve under the sentencing guidelines which control federal sentencing now," he said.
"I did not believe they should be held in incarceration -- in effect -- by guilt by association," he said.
Asked about the difference of opinion between him and his wife, Clinton said he never spoke to the first lady about the offer.
"It was up to her and entirely appropriate for her to say whatever she wanted to about it. But I did what I thought was right," Clinton said.
The president said he received petitions on behalf of the prisoners from hundreds of people, including former President Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, other religious leaders and congressmen.
Armed Forces of National Liberation, a Puerto Rican pro-independence group known by its Spanish initials, claimed responsibility or were blamed for 130 bombings, mostly in New York and Chicago, in the 1970s and early 1980s.
None of the 16 at the heart of the clemency offer was convicted in any of the bombings. They were convicted on a variety of charges, ranging from bomb-making and conspiracy to armed robbery, and given sentences ranging from 35 to 90 years; the activists served 14 to 19 years in prison.
Reuters contributed to this report.
First lady calling Hispanic leaders about clemency controversy
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