SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Throngs of supporters greeted a Puerto Rican nationalist leader Tuesday as he returned from nearly 30 years in prison for participating in a group that used violence against U.S. control of the island.
Carlos Alberto Torres, 57, pushed through hundreds of people who waved Puerto Rican flags and promised they would keep fighting for the Caribbean territory's independence.
Among the supporters was Torres' stepmother, who received clemency in 1999 while serving a similar sentence for conspiring against the U.S. government.
"This has to be the best day of my life. After 30 years, after many struggles, to come back home," Carlos Alberto Torres told the crowd in a brief statement before leaving the airport.
Torres was paroled Monday from a federal prison in Illinois on charges of seditious conspiracy and carrying a firearm. He expects to resume painting and making pottery, said Eduardo Villanueva, spokesman for the Puerto Rican Committee for Human Rights.
He had been excluded in 1999 when President Bill Clinton offered clemency to 16 members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, a group that authorities linked to bombings of U.S. civilian and military targets from 1974 to 1983. The attacks killed at least six people and wounded dozens.
In a 1999 letter to a congressman, Clinton said he refused to commute Torres' sentence because he "was identified as the leader of the group, and had made statements that he was involved in a revolution against the United States and that his actions had been legitimate."
Testifying before Congress last year, Joseph Connor, the son of a man killed in what authorities say was a 1975 FALN bombing in New York called the clemency offer "unimaginable, immoral and dangerous."
Supporters say Torres was a political prisoner, and many of the hundreds gathered at the airport called him a hero.
"He is a symbol of struggle and courage," said Marta Toledo, 63.
While the crowd that surrounded Torres called for the independence of Puerto Rico, that position has proved a small minority among the island's 4 million residents.
Puerto Ricans voted to maintain the island's status as a U.S. commonwealth and rejected a push to become the 51st state in nonbinding referendums in 1967, 1993 and 1998. A small percentage of voters backed independence.
During an appearance Tuesday to celebrate a local holiday, Gov. Luis Fortuno, a statehood supporter, urged President Barack Obama on Tuesday to address the island's status.
"We want to free ourselves from the chains of colonization to progress," Fortuno said. "We want to be free so we can be happy. ... And this happiness is only guaranteed by a flag of 13 stripes with 51 stars."