Indigenous activist Leonard Peltier in plea for clemency after 47 years in jail

Exclusive: Peltier, 78, convicted of murdering two FBI agents in 1975, tells Guardian of desire to return home to tribal land

Arwa Mahdawi – Columnist, Guardian US

“Leonard Peltier, the Indigenous rights activist held for almost five decades in maximum security for crimes he has always denied, has made a plea for clemency so that he can wander freely and hug his grandchildren for the first time.

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian to mark the start of his 48th year in prison, Peltier spoke about the pain of being deprived of his liberty, and his yearning to be reunited with his homeland and community after so many years.

“Being free to me means being able to breathe freely away from the many dangers I live under in maximum custody prison. Being free would mean I could walk over a mile straight. It would mean being able to hug my grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” said Peltier, aged 78.

“I have been kept away from my family and only seen them a few times over the past 47 years. It is more than hard, especially when the kids write to me and tell me they want to see me and I cannot afford the cost of travel. If I was free I would build me a home on my tribal land, help build the economy of our nations and give a home to our homeless children,” Peltier said in an interview conducted over email via one of his approved contacts.

Peltier, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe and of Lakota and Dakota descent, was convicted of murdering two FBI agents during a shootout on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in June 1975. Peltier was a leader of the American Indian Movement (Aim), an Indigenous civil rights movement founded in Minneapolis that was infiltrated and repressed by the FBI.

The 1977 murder trial – and subsequent parole hearings – were rife with irregularities and due process violations including evidence that the FBI had coerced witnesses, withheld and falsified evidence. Amnesty International, UN experts, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and the Rev Jesse Jackson are among those to have condemned his prolonged detention as arbitrary and politically motivated and called for his release.

Peltier, who is currently detained in Coleman, Florida, has spent 46 of the past 47 years in maximum security. Multiple recommendations to lower his prisoner classification, so that he can be transferred to a less restrictive prison closer to his family, have been rejected.

Life inside for Peltier has got even harder and more lonely since the start of the Covid pandemic, with frequent and unpredictable lockdowns, limited access to medical care and virtually no access to the phone, computers or the art room – where Peltier would spend much of his time painting and writing.

“This place is becoming a complete lockdown institution. I’m living in a 6×12 cell built for one person that I am forced to share, where we spend 24 hours a day during these frequent lockdowns. You’re on guard every moment of the day … I am not receiving the medical treatment that I need and I suffer a lot of pain from the illness that needs treatment. A lot of programs are being taken away, and other privileges which make it even more stressful,” said Peltier, whose health and mobility have significantly deteriorated since he contracted Covid last year.

In 2022, UN experts called for Peltier’s immediate releaseafter concluding that his prolonged imprisonment amounted to arbitrary detention.

“Mr Peltier’s detention has been prolonged by parole officials who have departed from guidelines and failed to follow regulations pertaining to his parole proceedings. This, in addition to the influence of the FBI over the case, is the reason why he remains in detention during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is a threat to his life,” they said.

Last month, a former FBI agent close to the case accused the agency of harboring a vendetta against Peltier and called for his release. Peltier contacted the Guardian after Coleen Rowley’s unprecedented intervention calling for a presidential pardon.

Rowley, the former legal counsel at the Minneapolis FBI office, which played a key role in policing tribal nations, told the Guardian that in the 1990s she helped ghostwrite an op-ed arguing against Peltier’s release.

Peltier said: “I’m very disappointed that she was involved in creating false evidence and took this long for her to come forward. However, I am grateful now that she did decide to tell the truth … I am hopeful that Biden will sign my clemency. But I am not sure there will be any difference.

Peltier’s hopes have been raised and crushed by numerous US presidents, Democratic and Republican, including last-minute changes of heart by both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, according to his attorneys. The status of his current clemency application is unclear.

On Monday, vigils calling for his release will be held by his supporters across the country including in Sacramento, California, which his granddaughter Julie Richards will attend.

“Grandpa Leonard is an inspiration to me and so many others. He deserves to see the light outside prison walls of day, so he can get back and stand with the people, we need him,” said Richards, an anti-pipeline and water activist on Pine Ridge reservation whose biological grandmother Geraldine High Wolf, a member of the AIM, who adopted Peltier as her brother.

Peltier has said that his political activism was driven by the racism and brutal poverty he experienced every day growing up on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Fort Totten Sioux reservations in North Dakota, and living through the federal government’s forced assimilation policies at boarding school.

Indigenous activism – and the political, cultural and legal landscape – have evolved since the AIM’s heyday, but the pandemic exposed and exacerbated the housing, health, economic, food and water inequalities still faced by Indigenous Americans, shining the spotlight on the federal government’s failure to abide by its treaty promises.

“Nothing has changed for me or my beliefs. I hear life is somewhat easier today with not so much hunger and open racism as when I was growing up, but we still have a ways to go until we are free from the concentration camps systems I grew up in. Although we have made many gains and won some victories in the courts, we are still fighting against the large corporations for the theft of our lands and minerals. Of course any and all victories are great but the cost is high – as at Standing Rock when many were imprisoned.”

Peltier has no option but to hope that this time the US government will grant him clemency despite the FBI’s 47-year effort to block his freedom.

“Of course I know from my own experiences that the justice system sucks in America, and for us natives has not changed much in that area. It’s 2023 but it’s still a very racist system,” he said.

FBI’s opposition to releasing Leonard Peltier driven by vendetta, says ex-agent

Exclusive: retired FBI agent Coleen Rowley calls for clemency for Indigenous activist who has been in prison for nearly 50 years

The FBI’s repeated opposition to the release of Leonard Peltier is driven by vindictiveness and misplaced loyalties, according to a former senior agent close to the case who is the first agency insider to call for clemency for the Indigenous rights activist who has been held in US maximum security prisons for almost five decades.

Coleen Rowley, a retired FBI special agent whose career included 14 years as legal counsel in the Minneapolis division where she worked with prosecutors and agents directly involved in the Peltier case, has written to Joe Biden making a case for Peltier’s release.

“Retribution seems to have emerged as the primary if not sole reason for continuing what looks from the outside to have become an emotion-driven ‘FBI Family’ vendetta,” said Rowley in the letter sent to the US president in December and shared exclusively with the Guardian.

Rowley added: “The focus of my two cents leading to my joining the call for clemency is based on Peltier’s inordinately long prison sentence and an ever more compelling need for simple mercy due to his advanced age and deteriorating health.

“Enough is enough. Leonard Peltier should now be allowed to go home.”

Peltier, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe and of Lakota and Dakota descent, was convicted of murdering two FBI agents during a shootout on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in June 1975. Peltier was a leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), an Indigenous civil rights movement founded in Minneapolis that was infiltrated and repressed by the FBI.

Rowley refers to the historical context in which the shooting took place as “… the long-standing horribly wrongful oppressive treatment of Indians in the U.S. [which] played a key role in putting both the agents and Peltier in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

The 1977 murder trial – and subsequent parole hearings – were rife with irregularities and due process violations including evidence that the FBI had coerced witnesses, withheld and falsified evidence.

Peltier, now 78, has been held in maximum security prisons for 46 of the past 47 years. He has always denied shooting the agents. Last year, UN experts called for Peltier’s immediate release after concluding that his prolonged imprisonment amounted to arbitrary detention.

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian about her intervention, Rowley, who retired in 2004, said that for years new agents were “indoctrinated” with the FBI’s version of events.

“The facts are murky, and I’m not going to say either narrative is correct. I wasn’t there. But I do know that if you really care about justice, then the real issue now is mercy, truth and reconciliation. To keep this going for almost 50 years really shows the level of vindictiveness the organisation has for Leonard Peltier.

“The bottom line is there are all kinds of problems in the intelligence service which by and large never get corrected for the same reasons: group conformity, pride and an unwillingness to admit mistakes so systemic problems are covered up and never fixed,” said Rowley, a 9/11 whistleblower who testified to the Senate about FBI failures in the terrorist attacks.

Nick Estes, an assistant professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, said Rowley’s support of Peltier’s clemency was “historic”.

“She is trying to dispel a myth that is deeply embedded into the culture of the FBI … handed down through indoctrinating young recruits such as Rowley about Peltier’s unquestionable guilt and the FBI’s supposed blamelessness during the reign of terror on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation,” said Estes, a volunteer with the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.

Rowley wrote to Biden in response to a letter by the intelligence agency’s current director vehemently opposing Peltier’s release on behalf of the “entire FBI family” – which was recently published online by the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI.

Christopher Wray described Peltier as a “remorseless killer who brutally murdered two of our own – special agents Jack R Coler and Ronald A Williams”. Commutation of Peltier’s sentence would be “shattering to the victims’ loved ones and an affront to the rule of law”, according to Wray’s letter to the justice department’s pardon attorney dated March 2022.

FBI has successfully opposed every clemency application with emotive op-eds, letters and marches on Washington.

But the time served on most murder sentences ranges between 11 and 18 years, while Mark Putnam, the first FBI agent convicted of homicide – for strangling his female informant – was released after serving just 10 years of a 16-year sentence. Peltier was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, and a parole officer who recommended his release after acknowledging that there was not enough evidence to sustain the conviction, was demoted.

“The disparate nature of Peltier being held for nearly a half century behind bars is striking,” said Rowley, who in the 1990s helped pen an op-ed by the head of the Minneapolis division opposing Peltier’s release. “The facts are everything, not loyalty to the FBI family, not them versus us, not good guys versus bad guys.”

Peltier supporters hope that Rowley’s intervention will count.

“Rowley speaks with authority and is saying that nothing justifies him being in prison, just vindictiveness, so ignoring her means turning a blind eye to what’s happening,” said Kevin Sharp, Peltier’s attorney who submitted the most recent clemency application 18 months ago. “Rowley knows the case. She knows the FBI and supervised some of those directly involved. She knows Indian Country, so understands the context, which is really important.”

Peltier is currently being held in a maximum security prison in Coleman, Florida, where his health has significantly deteriorated since contracting Covid-19, according to Sharp, who visited in December. Multiple recommendations by the facility to lower Peltier’s classification, so that he can be transferred to a less restrictive prison closer to his family, have been rejected.

“This is a little old man with a walker. It’s not just the FBI that’s vindictive,” added Sharp, a former federal judge appointed by Obama who stepped down from the bench in protest of mandatory minimum sentences. He took on Peltier’s case in 2018 after successfully obtaining a pardon from Donald Trump for a young Black man he had been forced to imprison.

According to Sharp, Peltier’s clemency was still on the table until Trump’s last day in office but didn’t make it on to the final list of presidential pardons which was mostly former associates and white-collar criminals.

He added: “This is not about a 10-minute shootout. It’s about hundreds of years of what had gone before and the decades of what’s gone on afterwards. That’s why Leonard Peltier was convicted, and that’s why he’s still in jail.”

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