President Obama gave clemency to a leader of a Puerto Rican terrorist group. The son of a victim to one of the group’s attacks responds.
Joe Connor celebrated his ninth birthday four days before his father was killed in a bombing at New York’s landmark Fraunces Tavern in 1975.
The bombing was the most notorious act of violence committed by Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, or FALN, a terrorist group that in the 1970s and early ’80s waged an unsuccessful, violent campaign to win independence for Puerto Rico, a territory of the U.S.
Connor, 50, grew up to be a New York City banker like his father, Frank Connor.
In an interview with The Daily Signal, Connor said he never really has been able to escape the day of the Fraunces Tavern bombing, in which his father and three others died and more than 60 were injured. His father was 33.
On Tuesday night, Connor’s memories became especially raw when President Barack Obama commuted the prison sentence of a FALN leader, Oscar Lopez Rivera, the last remaining member of the group still incarcerated.
“What it does to our family is it brings back all the wounds again,” Connor told The Daily Signal.
In 1999, Lopez Rivera declined a previous opportunity for freedom that would have required him to renounce terrorism.
FALN, which translates to Armed Forces of National Liberation, claimed responsibility for more than 120 bombings between 1974 and 1983.
Lopez Rivera was not charged directly in the Fraunces Tavern bombing, or in any of FALN’s attacks.
But some people, like Connor, still hold Lopez Rivera responsible because of his ties to the group.
“My father deserved better,” Connor said. “He deserves justice. He got nothing.”
“I would love to ask people who support his release and say, ‘If he’s not a terrorist, what has Oscar Lopez done to help the Puerto Rican people and to fight for their independence?’”
Obama’s commutation will allow Lopez Rivera, 74, to leave prison by May 17.
As Connor mourned Obama’s decision, Lopez Rivera’s supporters cheered.
In recent years, religious leaders, pop culture figures, and U.S. politicians of Puerto Rican descent, among others, rallied for Lopez Rivera.
They include former President Jimmy Carter; Pope Francis; Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.; and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Supporters argue that FALN members incarcerated by the U.S. government were political prisoners of war and they question the nation’s authority to prosecute them.
After Obama commuted Lopez Rivera’s prison sentence, Miranda tweeted that he was “sobbing with gratitude.”
Sanders also expressed gratitude to Obama.
Lopez Rivera, born in Puerto Rico, moved to Chicago as a teenager. He was drafted into the Army in the Vietnam War. When he returned to Chicago, he became involved with Puerto Rico’s independence movement.
In 1981, a federal court in Chicago sentenced Lopez Rivera, then 37, to 55 years for convictions on charges of seditious conspiracy, armed robbery, interstate transportation of firearms, and conspiracy to transport explosives with intent to destroy government property.
According to The Washington Post, FBI agents discovered dynamite, detonators, and firearms at two residences occupied by Lopez Rivera. A witness from FALN testified at trial that Lopez Rivera personally trained him in making bombs.
At Lopez Rivera’s sentencing to 55 years in prison, a federal judge called him an “unrehabilitated revolutionary.”
He later was sentenced to an additional 15 years in 1988 for plotting to escape prison.
By the time he becomes free, Lopez Rivera will have served 35 years in federal prison.
Connor concedes that Lopez Rivera, at 74 years old, is likely no longer a threat to society.
Yet he says he can’t forgive the FALN leader because he doesn’t think Lopez Rivera has shown appropriate remorse.
“If he had shown contrition for the things he did, if he had shown remorse, I can forgive,” Connor said. “There was nothing there we could grasp onto.”
In 1999, President Bill Clinton offered clemency to 16 FALN members, including Lopez Rivera.
Clinton’s decision was opposed by law enforcement groups, some politicians such as then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and the first lady, Hillary Clinton.
While 12 prisoners accepted Clinton’s offer and were freed, Lopez Rivera rejected the chance to reduce his sentence. As a condition of clemency, FALN members had to renounce terrorism.
Jan Susler, Lopez Rivera’s attorney, said at the time that her client did not accept the clemency offer because it did not include all of the group’s members.
Susler did not respond to The Daily Signal’s requests for comment for this story.
“I don’t think he is a danger to society,” Connor said. “He has been in prison a long time. I am not fearful. I hope he does do good. But I worry about the precedent of releasing someone I consider to be a terrorist. Where is the upside? What are we doing this for?’”