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First lady opposes presidential clemency for Puerto Rican Nationalists

From CNN White House Correspondent Chris Black

September 5, 1999
Web posted at: 11:34 a.m. EDT (1534 GMT)

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Sept. 5) -- First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton opposes her husband's offer of clemency to a group of Puerto Rican nationalists saying they took too long to renounce violence.

Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton's U.S. Senate exploratory committee, said Mrs. Clinton felt that the prisoners had waited too long to accept the condition for the commutation of their prison sentences -- the renunciation of any future violent activity.

President Clinton, responding to an appeal for clemency from a number of religious organizations, Puerto Rican politicians and former President Jimmy Carter, offered to commute the sentences of 11 prisoners. He also would reduce the remaining sentences of three others and cancel fines levied against two more. The commutation offer, made August 11, set conditions that included the renunciation of violence.

Each of the prisoners has served more than 19 years, longer than the amount of time usually served for the crimes they were convicted of committing, said White House officials.

None of the prisoners was found guilty of murder, bombing or hurting a person.

Their crimes include armed robbery and illegal weapons possession. Most of the inmates did not have lawyers and refused to defend themselves in court because they did not recognize the authority of the US government.

In a statement Sunday, Mrs. Clinton said three weeks was long enough and the failure to respond to the president's offer in that amount of time "spoke volumes."

Wolfson said Mrs. Clinton now would oppose the clemency offer even if the prisoners renounce violence.

White House officials have said the delay in responding was a logistical problem because the prisoners are scattered in different prisons and belong to different Puerto Rican nationalist groups.

The White House had advised lawyers for the prisoners that they only had a week more, until next Friday at 5 p.m., to respond formally to the clemency offer.

Law enforcement officials and Mrs. Clinton's likely Republican opponent New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani criticized the offer.

Mrs. Clinton also said that she had nothing to do with the original clemency offer. White House officials say the clemency petitions have been in the works for six years. Former White House Counsel Charles Ruff promised the three members of Congress who were leading the appeal for clemency that he would make a recommendation to the president before he left his job this summer.

This is Mrs. Clinton's most recent public break with a policy espoused by her husband. Earlier, she criticized an administration Medicare plan as unhealthy to New York's teaching hospitals.

"She thinks this administration has been great for America and great for New York," said Wolfson. "She supports this administration 99 percent of the time, but there are going to be some instances where there are some disagreements, and that is perfectly appropriate. No two people agree 100 percent of the time."

Wolfson said Mrs. Clinton told her husband she was going to oppose his clemency offer on Saturday while they were at Camp David.

But the prisoners have indeed renounced violence, though their attorney, said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois. He noted that 10 Nobel Peace Prize winners have joined the effort, as have Jimmy Carter, the cardinal of New York, and the archbishop of Puerto Rico.

"Why would all these for people who want to continue violence," he said on NBC's Meet the Press.

Gutierrez said that, had the prisoners defended themselves, they would likely have received concurrent instead of consecutive sentences, and would have been released by now.

Whether they renounce violence or not, the offer of clemency was a mistake, said Rep. Vito Fossella, R-New York, on the same program. "These people belong behind bars."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, concurred. "Virtually everybody in law enforcement is recommending this clemency be withdrawn," he told NBC. "It sends the wrong message at a time when we're facing more and more terrorism in the world."


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Text of statement by Hillary Rodham Clinton:

"When the administration first offered these prisoners clemency, I made it very clear that I had no involvement in or prior knowledge of the decision, as is entirely appropriate, and that the prisoners should not be released unless they renounced violence. It's been three weeks and their silence speaks volumes. I believe the offer of clemency should be withdrawn."


Sunday, September 5, 1999

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