Addressing the inequities of the criminal justice system, President Obama on Monday commuted the sentences of 46 federal prisoners who had been convicted of drug offenses.
“The overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years – 14 of them had been sentenced to life for non-violent drug offenses. So their punishments didn’t fit the crime,” the president said in a video posted on the White House’s Facebook page.
But Monday’s commutations have left Native Americans wondering if Obama will, in fact, commute the sentence of political prisoner Leonard Peltier before the end of his term.
For decades, activists and celebrities have called for the release of Peltier, who was convicted of killing two FBI agents in 1975 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota following a confrontation between the federal government and the American Indian Movement [AIM] – an organization that continues to fight for Native American rights.
In response to a long list of violations by the United States, in the winter of 1973, AIM took up arms against the U.S. and made their stand at Wounded Knee – the massacre site of more than 300 Lakota – in an act of resistance against political corruption and governmental abuse.
Two years later, a shootout between AIM and the FBI left two agents dead. In 1977, Peltier was found guilty of the deaths and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
Since then, there have been significant developments in his case that suggest that the FBI and the prosecution acted incongruously to assure a conviction. In 1991, for example, the judge who presided over Peltier’s case, Gerald Heaney, wrote a letter to then-Senator Daniel Inouye, Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, stating he had concerns that should “merit consideration in any petition for leniency filed.”
More than 20 years later, the chorus of voices calling for Peltier’s release continues to grow.
Before his death in 2013, the late Nelson Mandela, once a political prisoner, added himself to the considerable list of celebrities who have called for executive clemency. In 2010, the late folk singer Pete Seeger, actor and musician Harry Belafonte, and hip-hop artist Common were among a long list of performers and activists for a concert at the Beacon Theatre in New York City calling on Obama to release Peltier.
Immediately after news broke of Monday’s commutations, social media was ablaze with more calls for Leonard Peltier’s freedom:
People on social media are also petitioning presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to encourage Obama to release Peltier.
Now 70, Peltier continues to maintain his innocence. Having been repeatedly denied parole, he will again be eligible in July 2024 at the age of 79. Even from prison, Peltier has garned six Nobel Peace Prize nominations.
In the video added below, socially-conscious band Rage Against the Machine plays their song “Freedom” in a documentary-styled format about the Wounded Knee Occupation: