Puerto Rican Political Prisoners and the positions of the United Church of Christ, the United Nations, and other bodies calling for their release.

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From its inception, the United Church of Christ has affirmed its support for fundamental human rights, and has acknowledged the dignity and worth of each person.  We are called to care for prisoners and to set free the oppressed, reminded that Jesus himself was imprisoned and murdered, and that even the patriarchs before him were oppressed and in held unjustly prison.  The setting free of captives was central to the ministry of Jesus, who read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, saying “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4

Oscar Lopez Rivera, Puerto Rican Political Prisoner

In 1980 and 1981, the F.B.I. and the U.S. National Guard in Puerto Rico removed 30 Puerto Rican men and women without notifying the Governor of Puerto Rico, and charged them with arms possession and conspiracy against the United States government. Those arrested believed that the U.S. government was a colonial power operating within Puerto Rico, and refused to participate in the U.S. judicial system that tried them.  The group requested war court trials in accordance with a number of United Nations declarations, which were refused.  Some of the 30 were tried and sentenced within the U.S. judicial system; others were released because there was no valid evidence against them.  Of those convicted in U.S. courts, the average sentence was 71.6 years for the men, and 72.8 years for the women – roughly 20 times greater than sentences for others convicted of similar crimes.  Their sentences and the conditions of their arrest are considered by many throughout the world to have been politically motivated, excessive, and in violation of international law.  International human rights groups have cited the similarity between the case of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years for an attempted overthrow of the apartheid regime, and that of the Puerto Rican prisoners arrested, charged, and incarcerated for their fight against U.S. control of Puerto Rican sovereignty.  

Ultimately, 14 Puerto Rican nationalists were incarcerated in the United States.  In 1999, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 12 of these men and women after they had served from 16 to 19 years of their sentences, which originally ranged from 35 to 90 years.  He did so because, in his words, “they were serving extremely lengthy sentences…out of proportion to their crimes.”  Two other nationalists – Carlos Alberto Torres and Oscar Lopez Rivera -- did not accept the terms, and were not released.  Carlos Alberto was eventually paroled in 2010.  In January 2011, Oscar Lopez appeared before a parole examiner, who recommended that he remain incarcerated.

The United Church of Christ stands in solidarity with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and with United Nations in its repeated resolutions of support for people who struggle against domination by alien powers   In the1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and People (Resolution 1514, adopted in1960), the U.N. recognized that people of the world ardently desire the end of colonialism, welcomed the emergence of dependent territories into freedom and independence, and proclaimed the inalienable right for all people to freedom, the exercise of their sovereignty, and the integrity of their national territory. U.N. Resolution 2621, adopted by the General Assembly in 1970, declares continuation of colonialism in all its forms and manifestations a crime violating the U.N. Charter, and reaffirms the inherent right of colonial people to struggle by all necessary means against colonial powers which suppress their aspiration for freedom and independence. In 1973, the U.N. published basic principles of the legal status of combatants who struggle against alien domination and racist regimes (Resolution 3103, adopted by the General Assembly December 12, 1973), reaffirming its prior declarations and calling to mind repeated calls to the body for support for colonized people.  Specifically, the United Nations proclaims that the struggle of people under colonial domination is legitimate, that attempts to suppress the struggle against colonial domination is incompatible with the U.N. Charter and with principles of international law, and declares that combatants struggling against colonial and alien domination who are captured as prisoners are to be accorded the status of prisoners of war, entitled to protection under the provisions of the Geneva Convention of 1949.  In similar resolutions, the U.N. has declared a right for protection of persons detained or imprisoned as a result of their struggle against apartheid, racism, colonialism, and foreign occupation (Resolution 32/122, December 16, 1977), calling upon member states to support and assist those who fight for national independence from foreign occupation.  The U.N. also declared a universal recognition of the right of people to self-determination, and the speedy granting of independence to colonial countries for the effective guarantee of human rights (Resolution 33/24, November 29, 1978). 

These Declarations, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are available in their entirety at www.un.org.  The United Nations encourages their distribution and duplication as a means to support education on the subject of human rights, from a broad and international perspective. 

In light of international law, and based on a call for social justice and human rights, and founded in its faith in the teachings of Christ, the United Church of Christ has joined with many other religious and secular bodies over the past three decades in calling for self-determination for Puerto Rico and amnesty for political prisoners of conscience.  In 1979, the United Church of Christ called for release of four Puerto Rican nationalist prisoners who were concerned with the political independence of Puerto Rico, and who attacked the Blair House and other sites on Capitol Hill, as a result of which they were convicted and imprisoned more than 25 years before.  The position of the United Church of Christ at that time was to support their release, given the extended sentences they had served, and in solidarity with the U.S. Justice Department which recommended their release in 1978, these prisoners should be released.  U.C.C. Resolution 79-GS-87 called for a presidential pardon for these prisoners, and in so doing, supported similar calls by the Puerto Rican Council of Protestant Churches, high bodies of the Episcopal, Methodist and Catholic churches in Puerto Rico and the United States, the National Council of Churches, former governors of Puerto Rico, both houses of the Puerto Rican legislature, labor unions, professional organizations, student councils, cultural groups, political organizations, and ten U.S. Congressmen who had written to the U.S. government expressing similar concerns.  This position, shared as it was by so many other bodies, was founded on principles of mercy, love and reconciliation as the foundation of human rights concerns. 

In 1985, the General Synod voted to adopt a resolution (85-GS-71) on the discriminatory treatment of prisoners of conscience, especially as they concerned women prisoners of conscience, citing Christ’s concern for those who were in captivity and in prison, and the foundational call to bring attention to the cry for justice and mercy for prisoners who are subjected to harsh and unmitigated conditions.  In 1989 (89-GS-89), the United Church of Christ General Synod adopted a resolution on the Ministry to Prisoners of Conscience, recalling the Christian responsibility to address the needs of prisoners and calling to mind that Jesus himself was held prisoner.  The United Church of Christ again acknowledged maltreatment of prisoners of conscience, and encouraged local congregations to reach out to prisoners of conscience and their families, and to effect visits and to call for an end to discriminatory treatment.  In so doing, the United Church of Christ supported the prison ministries of many other denominations (Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, and Disciples of Christ among them) who had adopted similar resolutions and had joined with the U.C.C. in this work.  

In 1991, the United Church of Christ called for self determination for Puerto Rico, and amnesty for prisoners of conscience (91-GS-85).  The U.C.C. General Assembly called for the immediate and unconditional amnesty to all Puerto Rican prisoners of conscience, as defined by Amnesty International, the granting of amnesty to advocates of independence who were in exile, and an end to the prosecution of advocates of independence. 

Similarly, in 1995 (95-GS-63), the General Synod recognized 100 years of U.S. colonialism in six island nations in Guam, Eastern (American) Samoa, Hawai’i, the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico, and called upon the government of the United States to affirm the rights of native peoples to self-determination.

For information on the positions of other denominations and bodies, see the Statement of the Methodist Church, “Free the Puerto Rican Political Prisoners,” adopted by the General Board of Church and Society in 1995; a statement calling for release of the Puerto Rican Political Prisoners approved by the Board of Directors, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America on February 10, 1995;  a resolution calling for unconditional and immediate amnesty for the Puerto Rican political prisoners by the Episcopal Church of Puerto Rico on October 22, 2995; and multiple calls by Nobel Laureates (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, and others); Human Rights Organizations (including the Center for Constitutional Rights, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, European Human Rights Foundation, the Institute for Ghandian Studies, and others); labor unions; other religious communities (including the World Council of Churches and other international bodies); representatives of other countries (including Northern Ireland, the Caribbean, Australia, New South Wales, Nicaragua, and Mexico); and elected officials of the United States and Puerto Rico. 

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Ms. Annie Congress
Administrative Assistant, Justice & Witness Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, Ohio 44115
216-736-3720
congresa@ucc.org