By Rodolfo Casals
Fifteen Puerto Rican independence fighters, including six women, are currently enduring extremely harsh conditions of imprisonment in US jails. They are regularly strip-searched and held in solitary confinement with no outside contact.
They are: Haydee Beltran, sentenced to life; Luis Rosa, who received 105 years; Ricardo Jimenez and Carmen Valentin, 98 years; Alicia Rodriguez, 85 years; her sister Ida Luz, 88 years; Carlos Alberto Torres and Adolfo Matos, 78 years each; Oscar Lopez Rivera, 70 years; Elizam Escobar, 68 years; Dylcia Pagan, 63 years; and Alejandrina Torres, Edwim Cortes and Albert Rodriguez, 35 years apiece. The remaining prisoner is Juan Segarra.
All these people, members of legal or underground organisations advocating Puerto Rican self-determination and independence, were arrested between April 1980 and June 1983. The majority of them were sentenced under the charge of seditious conspiracy to forcefully overthrow the United States authority in Puerto Rico, in effect since the country was occupied in 1898.
This charge was instituted for the first time during the US Civil War. It disappeared from use until the 1930s, when it was brought into force again, to be applied to Puerto Rican independence fighters, among them one of the leaders of the struggle, Pedro Albizu Campos, now deceased.
In 1950 it was applied to Oscar Collazo, sentenced to death for an attack on the White House and in 1954 to Lolita Lebron, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores and Andres Figueroa, who fired shots at the Congress to attract international attention to their nation's independence struggle.
The campaign for the release of the 15 prisoners is being waged both within and outside Puerto Rico and the United States, and has the support of all of the island's political forces, including official and pro-annexationist sectors, industrial and professional associations, and trade union federations.
Luis Nieves Falcon, coordinator of the campaign for their release, emphasises that these prisoners are not guilty of any criminal acts. He maintains that these advocates of Puerto Rican sovereignty stand accused of an essentially intellectual crime, because, in real terms, they have been charged with mentally upholding UN principles which establish the right to use any means to eradicate colonialism.
A lawyer by profession, a field of study he undertook a few years ago to enable access to the prisoners by cutting through bureaucratic red tape and prison restrictions, Nieves Falcon believes that their sentences are highly disproportionate. For example, a member of the racist US Ku Klux Klan, who was discovered with a complete arsenal in his truck, was given a five-year prison term, and was provisionally discharged within one year. Meanwhile, one of the Puerto Rican prisoners, caught in possession of a hand gun, was sentenced to 35 years and is currently in her 14th year of imprisonment.
"In the United States, the average term spent in jail for kidnapping is five years and three months, and for crimes of violence it's from two to four years", the lawyer said. "This is proof of the political nature of the charges against the Puerto Rican independence fighters."
During a visit to Havana, Nieves Falcon charged that their prison terms are also accompanied by other forms of punishment, such as exile. The Puerto Ricans are incarcerated in the United States, in spite of the fact that there are US prisoners in Puerto Rico. This distances them from any family support.
Although the United States is a signatory to the international treaty on prison conditions for political prisoners, 80% of its provisions are violated in the case of the Puerto Ricans.
The 15 Puerto Ricans are stripped and their ears, mouths, penises or vaginas and rectums are searched every time they leave or enter their cells, whether to receive a legal or family visit, or to see the prison authorities.
Some of the prisoners have had to endure this kind of torture and degradation up to eight times in one day.
Another additional punishment endured by almost all these prison inmates is what is known as total sensory deprivation. Their cells are hermetically sealed, painted white, with artificial lights burning 24 hours a day. The only natural sound is the noise made by the food tray, pushed through an opening, scraping against the floor.
Alejandrina Torres suffered this torture in a Kentucky jail for two and a half years, before her lawyers succeeded in getting her transferred to another prison. She has still not recovered from the effects.
Oscar Lopez Rivera was held in solitary confinement for 11 years in Illinois. He is now enduring even worse conditions in a 100% soundproofed cell in Colorado. His skin has become grey as a result of such a prolonged period without natural sunlight, Nieves Falcon reported.
Elizam Escobar is an artist who had to resort to the courts to gain permission to paint. The committee formed to demand his release handed over money for art materials to the prison authorities. He is now being accused of having inflammable materials in his cell, even though these were the same materials acquired by the prison. His 76-year-old mother, who travelled from Puerto Rico to visit him for one week, was stripped naked before seeing her son. After the first day's visit, she was told he had been transferred to a prison in another state.
An appeal also had to be made before a jury to lift a visit prohibition on Alejandrina Torres, so that she could receive a visit from her grandchildren.
The US press maintains complete silence regarding the situation of these political prisoners. Nieves Falcon said that last December the campaign coordinating committee had to pay huge sums of money to the New York Times and La Prensa de Nueva York to publish, in advertisement form, the call demanding their immediate release, made to President Clinton by figures from all Puerto Rican political tendencies.
The campaign's new proposal is to collect some 600,000 signatures in Puerto Rico, the United States and other countries, and to send the petition to the White House to keep up the pressure for the release of the 15 Puerto Rican independence fighters.
[From Granma International.]