SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The U.S. Parole Commission said Friday it has denied a request for the early release of a Puerto Rican nationalist who was once offered clemency by President Bill Clinton.
Oscar Lopez Rivera's first bid for parole after serving nearly half of a 70-year sentence for seditious conspiracy, robbery and other charges was denied, the chairman of the commission, Isaac Fulwood, Jr., said in a statement.
The breakdown of the vote and the specific reasons for denial were not released.
"We have to look at whether release would depreciate the seriousness of the offenses or promote disrespect of the law, whether release would jeopardize public safety, and the specific characteristics of the offender," Fulwood said.
Lopez, 68, can appeal but for now he must serve until at least 2021 under federal sentencing rules, said Johanna Markind, an assistant general counsel for the commission.
His lawyer, Jan Susler, called the ruling an "irrational decision that ignores their own standards" for release. But she had not yet discussed it with her client — and wasn't even sure if he had been informed of the decision — and did yet not know if he would appeal.
"I am outraged," Susler said from Chicago. "I am really upset that an agency that is part of the Department of Justice of the United States could be so unjust."
In January, a hearing examiner recommended against releasing Lopez on parole following a closed hearing at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he is held. Still, several members of Congress of Puerto Rican descent and many officials on the island supported his release.
Puerto Rican human rights groups and others will continue a campaign seeking public support for his parole, Susler said.
Lopez was sentenced to 55 years after his conviction in 1981 on charges that included seditious conspiracy, use of force to commit robbery and interstate transportation of firearms as a member of the ultranationalist Armed Forces of National Liberation in a struggle for independence from the U.S. for the Caribbean island. He received an additional 15 years in 1988 after he was convicted of conspiring to escape from prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
The Armed Forces of National Liberation claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings at public and commercial buildings during the 1970s and '80s in such U.S. cities as New York, Chicago and Washington, as well as in Puerto Rico. The most notorious was a bombing at New York's landmark Fraunces Tavern in 1975 that killed four people and injured more than 60 in a lunchtime crowd. Lopez was not convicted of any role in that attack.
Clinton offered in 1999 to release Lopez and 13 other Puerto Rican nationalists as part of what was at the time a politically sensitive clemency deal. Under the deal, Lopez would have had to serve 10 more years in prison. He rejected the offer because it did not include two comrades who have since been released.
Upon his release, Lopez had intended to settle in his hometown of San Sebastian, in the northwest of the U.S. island territory.