August 6, 2000
By Royce Carlson
hear a lot in the news about the U.S. government’s position on human
rights and how it supports the release of political prisoners all around
the world, but did you know that there are political prisoners in
It is estimated that between 100 and 200 people are in jail in the
U.S. for political reasons. Two of the most famous U.S. political
prisoners are Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Leonard Peltier was involved in the American Indian Movement (AIM) in
the early seventies. The Pine Ridge Indian reservation was one of the
poorest in the U.S. and was being run by a tribal government that was
abusing its people. This abusive tribal government was also a puppet of
the U.S. government. AIM was founded to resist that abuse and represent
the people better.
On June 26, 1975 two plain-clothes FBI agents arrived at the home of
an AIM member in an unmarked car and were killed in a shoot out. Three
AIM members were arrested. No one knows who shot first. Three people
were arrested on suspicion of shooting the FBI agents. The first two
went to trial and were acquitted due to lack of evidence. The government
was desperate to put someone in jail for the crime and Leonard Peltier
got to be the one. Evidence was forged and a witness was threatened and
coerced into testifying against Peltier.
He has now been in prison for 25 years. The Freedom of Information
Act made it possible for his legal defense committee to get a hold of
much of this information (although some is still being withheld). It
reveals that there is no conclusive evidence connecting Peltier with the
shooting and that the one witness who said she heard Peltier confess was
coerced, yet he is still in prison. In June 2000 he was again denied a
parole hearing. Why?
Mumia Abu-Jamal was an award-winning journalist in Philadelphia in
the seventies and president of the Association of Black Journalists of
Philadelphia. He was outspoken on race issues and particularly critical
of police brutality in the Philadelphia police department. He had no
prior criminal record.
In December of 1981 while intervening in a street incident where a
policeman was beating Mumia’s own brother, Mumia was shot. The
policeman was also shot and killed. Several witnesses saw other people
running from the scene. Mumia was beaten and then arrested and convicted
of murder. Once again there was a witness who testified against him that
later revealed that she was coerced under threat of her own arrest for
some prior situation.
He has been on Death Row for 17 years. Journalists are prohibited
from filming or recording interviews with him. Why?
Similar stories surround the incarceration of dozens of men and women
held in U.S. prisons. Despite inconclusive evidence, coerced and
threatened witnesses, and proof of government cover-ups, these people
remain in jail. Invariably they are vocal proponents for various groups
that are not favored by the U.S. government and thus they stay in
The government is, however, somewhat responsive to public outcry. If
the pressure on the government to review these cases objectively is
strong enough these political prisoners may go free. Several are
released each year due to this kind of public response.
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