Many Methodists and United Methodists had lobbied for the pardon of Oscar López-Rivera, a Puerto Rican national now expected to be released in May after President Barack Obama pardoned him.
López-Rivera has been in federal prison since 1981, convicted of “seditious conspiracy” for his role in the Puerto Rican nationalist group Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, or FALN. Between 1974 and 1983, the FALN claimed responsibility for more than 70 bombings in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The bombings caused millions in property damage, dozens of injuries and five deaths. United Methodists pointed out that Lopez-Rivera was never officially accused of having hurt people or property.
Both the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico and The United Methodist Church, especially the Methodists Associated Representing the Hispanic American Cause, have advocated for López- Rivera’s release for decades.
General Conference 2016 passed a petition requesting the release of López-Rivera, saying The United Methodist Church and the Methodist Church of Puerto Rica have “advocated for the liberation of Puerto Rican women and men sentenced to excessive punishment due to alleged crimes related to their struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico.”
According to the petition, which passed on a consent calendar 759-24, López-Rivera is “the longest-serving political prisoner in the Western Hemisphere.” The petition, submitted by MARCHA, noted that previous General Conferences also approved resolutions requesting the release of Puerto Rican political prisoners.
A Vietnam veteran who received the Bronze Star, López-Rivera worked as a community organizer in Chicago after the war. There, he became involved in activism around the cause of Puerto Rican independence.
In 1972, he co-founded the “Dr. Pedro Alvizú Campos Puerto Rican High School” to provide educational opportunities for the Hispanic/Latino youth of Chicago.
His commitment to fighting the injustice and marginalization of the Puerto Rican people led him to join FALN in 1976. In 1981, he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 55 years in prison.
López-Rivera sought unsuccessfully to be recognized as a prisoner of war, hoping to rely on Protocol I of the Geneva Convention of 1949 that entitles rights for persons apprehended for their participation in actions that oppose colonial occupation.
After being accused of a failed attempt to escape, his sentence was increased to 70 years.
A justice and humanitarian issue
The Rev. Germán Acevedo, leader of the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico and former president of MARCHA, said Lopez-Rivera was never officially accused of having hurt people or property, but was tried for sedition.
“It is worth noting that ‘sedition’ is to rebel against the established constitutional order, which is uncertain because the Puerto Rican independence movement in which Oscar Lopez participated in never sought to overthrow the U.S. government, but sought the end of the colonial relationship with Puerto Rico and the independence of the country," Acevedo said.
Social, political, cultural, religious groups, churches and ecumenical movements in various parts of the world have joined for years in the demand for the release of López-Rivera. His supporters include religious leaders like Pope Francis, celebrities like "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and academics.
"The release of Oscar López-Rivera is a great joy for the Puerto Rican people and for the Methodist people. It has been a long and prolonged effort by the church in Puerto Rico with official resolutions at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 General Conferences,” said the Rev. Hector Ortiz, bishop of the Methodist Church of Puerto Rica.
“The church has acted in accordance with its humanitarian principles, with Bishop Juan Vera’s determination, and Bishop Rafael Moreno, who personally visited Oscar López Rivera at the Indiana prisons,” Ortiz said.
The Rev. Lyssette Perez, the current president of MARCHA, said justice was achieved with the pardon.
“This has allowed us to see and live the importance of being united for the good of those who suffer injustices and marginalization," she said.
"We will continue to advocate for justice in all the cases we can, inside and outside the church, because that is the mission of MARCHA,” said Perez, adding the Native American Caucus has asked MARCHA for support and collaboration for the release of “unjustly imprisoned” Native Americans for political reasons.
“We must analyze and discuss it soon so we can make a decision on it. We ask God to accompany us in this process,” she said.
Ortiz said the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico is preparing, along with a large number of social, political, cultural and religious organizations, to receive López-Rivera next May.
"In an initiative by Bishop Juan Vera just two days before President Obama granted the pardon, several churches and many other social organizations gathered at the Plaza Colon square in the city of San Juan for an event called 'For Oscar and his release... Flowers and Prayer'. It was an ecumenical, comprehensive and inclusive act and just one day after that prayer, the sentence was commuted. This is a demonstration of the power of prayer, especially when it is connected with justice and piety," Ortiz concluded.