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EDITORIAL: Leonard Peltier Justice and the President

The Windsor Star

December 23, 2003


Nothing seems to change for native activist Leonard Peltier. Despite 27 years of imprisonment, Peltier continues to steadfastly maintain he's innocent of a double murder involving FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

And despite the compelling evidence indicating that both the U.S. and Canadian governments are culpable in this controversial case, neither country will acknowledge that Peltier was likely railroaded.

All of this adds up to a seemingly hopeless scenario for Peltier, who is serving concurrent life sentences in Leavenworth Prison. Now 59 and in poor health, Peltier is destined to die in jail.

Peltier can't even get a proper parole hearing to tell his side of the story. Astonishingly, he has been repeatedly denied this basic right, routinely given to individuals who have served the mandatory 200 months for a murder charge. The latest blow to "early release" came a few months ago when Denver's 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to grant Peltier a parole hearing, even though the court acknowledged that the "government withheld evidence. It intimidated witnesses. These facts are not disputed."

The apparent government vendetta against Peltier has resulted in Amnesty International labelling him a "political prisoner." Amnesty believes Peltier should "immediately and unconditionally be released."

Which leads to U.S. President George W. Bush, who now represents the only glimmer of hope left for Peltier. Bush has the power to grant Peltier a presidential pardon. While a pardon neither clears a person's record, nor proves innocence, it does bring freedom.

However, a pardon is problematic for Bush. The president would face the same dilemma that confronted former president Bill Clinton. Clinton was sympathetic to Peltier but changed his mind about a pardon after hundreds of FBI agents launched a huge protest on the streets of Washington.

Bush also might not want to risk offending the FBI, given the agency's role in homeland security issues. But in Peltier's case, justice cries out for the president's intervention. What a pardon would say about Bush's sense of fairness and compassion would far outweigh any fallout from the FBI's unrelenting campaign against Peltier.

The treatment of Peltier makes a strong case for presidential intervention: Peltier was extradited from Canada solely on the false affidavits of one individual, Myrtle Poor Bear. She outlined details of Peltier's plan to kill the FBI agents, and claimed to be an eyewitness to the shootings.

In 2000, however, Poor Bear told a privately commissioned legal inquiry in Canada that she had never even met Peltier. She denied being on the reservation that fateful day. Poor Bear also said she was threatened and harassed by FBI agents. Meanwhile, FBI ballistics evidence used at Peltier's trial has proven to be questionable. In fact, parts of the evidence may have been fabricated ? a 1975 telex from an FBI ballistics expert noted that Peltier's alleged rifle had a "different firing pin, from the gun used to kill the two agents."

The controversy surrounding Peltier's case continues to draw support from scores of high profile individuals including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg, Sara McLachlan and members of Blue Rodeo. Others include former Liberal solicitor general Warren Allmand, a member of the Liberal cabinet at the time of the extradition, and Gerald Heaney, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals that upheld Peltier's conviction.

What's missing is any high level political support for Peltier in either Washington or Ottawa. It would greatly help Peltier to have Prime Minister Paul Martin ? who has vowed to make aboriginal issues a priority ? discuss the case with the president and acknowledge Canada's complicity.

President Bush has a moral obligation to at least consider a pardon for Leonard Peltier. It's a matter of justice, compassion and also doing what is right.

© Copyright 2003 Windsor Star