Political Prisoner Leonard Peltier Facing Potentially Fatal Medical Emergency
Eddie Conway speaks with organizer Jasmine Heiss about ongoing efforts to get President Obama to grant a pardon to Peltier, who has been a political prisoner in the US for more than 4 decades
EDDIE CONWAY: Thanks for joining me for this special edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Eddie Conway, and the topic that I’m getting ready to talk to our guests about is very dear and important to me because I’ve kind of witnessed it from a position of being a political prisoner for 44 years in the State of Maryland, and fighting that whole entire time to prove my innocence and to win my release. And, as that was occurring, a Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier was locked up during that period of time. He’s still locked up today, and there are protests and activity demanding and calling for his release.
So, joining me today to give me an update and give you an update on the status of Leonard Peltier’s case and what’s going on is Jasmine Heiss and she has been organizing for political prisoners, for human rights against solitary confinement. She has worked on the state level and the national level. She had testified in front of the United Nations, and she’s also been a monitor of police activities during the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings. Please join me in welcoming Jasmine Heiss. Jasmine, how are you doing?
JASMINE HEISS: Well, I wish that I was here today to talk to you about something that was less heavy. I wish I was here to talk to you about something that was more hopeful, but I do believe that we have a reason for hope, even in this terrifying political climate, and I’m very happy to be with you today.
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, what is the status right now of Leonard Peltier’s case, and appeal and demand for release?
JASMINE HEISS: Well, Mr. Peltier, as you know intimately, has endured more than four decades of unjust incarceration by the United States of America. He is more than 70 years old, and he’s currently being housed in a maximum security unit at Coleman Penitentiary in Florida. So he’s thousands of miles from his community, from his family. Like so many other political prisoners in our country, he is being, many would say, intentionally cut off from the support networks and the people who sustain him through this very long struggle for justice and for freedom.
Compounding that is the fact that Mr. Peltier is very ill. He has an abdominal aortic aneurism, or triple A, which is if ruptures is one of the most fatal surgical emergencies known to modern medicine. And yet the Federal Bureau of Prisons still has not operated on or treated this abdominal aortic aneurism. He’s had two MRIs and they insist that despite the fact that a 72-year-old man is being held in this maximum security facility, they will wait to operate until it reaches 5 centimeters. It’s currently at 4.5.
The last couple of times that I’ve seen Leonard in Coleman he has said to me, “If President Obama doesn’t act, I’m going to die here, and it won’t be of old age.” You yourself know that in this country, medical care for prisoners, particularly aging prisoners, is not something that’s prioritized, and we are looking at a federal prison system that is in a crisis of understaffing already. In a system that has tried to silence Mr. Peltier, some would argue to kill him, I think we can reasonably expect that he will not receive the highest level of care.
So, at this moment, his clemency petition is sitting on the President’s desk. We all know that there are not many days left in the Obama Administration and so if President Obama doesn’t act by January 20th to grant Mr. Peltier clemency, it may be his last hope.
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, I understand that there is an ongoing vigil and protests out in front of the White House that’s been going on for some time. Do you have any information about that?
JASMINE HEISS: I do. We’re incredibly lucky this week to have Mr. Peltier’s family and other members of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee and his support network in Washington, DC, asking not only the President but Members of Congress to show some political courage that has been so sorely lacking, not only in this current political climate, but over the past many, many years with regard to issues of political prisoners, and to release Mr. Peltier. So, his son, Chauncey has been in front of the White House, his niece, Kerry Ann(?), many others are here to ask President Obama to act. They’ve been in front of the White House almost every single day this week, which is significant, of course, because the 10th, this Saturday, is International Human Rights Day. And as much as the United States decides to espouse human rights when looking abroad and justifying things like military intervention, there is a sore need to really take the matter of human rights to heart when looking inside our own prisons and jails.
So, this Saturday, to mark International Human Rights Day, we will be having a conference at American University’s Washington College of Law beginning at 8:00 a.m. with speakers like Robert Hillary King, the first freed member of the Angola Three, Daniel McGowan, himself a former political prisoner, and then we’ll be going to the White House around 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon to, again, ask President Obama to be accountable to the people and to show political courage and put his signature on Mr. Peltier’s clemency application.
EDDIE CONWAY: It’s my understanding that Amnesty International have looked at his case and found that there was really some serious flaws in it. Can you just talk about that a minute?
JASMINE HEISS: Absolutely. Amnesty International, the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights, there’s really a chorus of human rights voices who have been vocal on Mr. Peltier’s case. Amnesty International is co-sponsoring the event that will take place this Saturday, on Human Rights Day, and many others will be there, either in presence or in spirit.
Amnesty International has looked at the case over the course of many years, including at Mr. Peltier’s subsequent appeals, at his parole hearings where he has repeatedly been denied parole, despite the fact that the federal government now admits that they cannot prove in any way that he is guilty of the crime that they have convicted him of, yet he remains in prison.
And so, right now, when we look at this last opportunity for Mr. Peltier’s freedom, Amnesty International has actively supported his clemency petition and has urged members of Congress to be vocal in supporting that petition and has urged President Obama to act before it’s too late.
EDDIE CONWAY: I think one of the most significant things about his case is that the release of the FOIA records on the FBI forensic reports shows that the FBI agents lied about the tests that they took on the weapon, the firing pin, etcetera, and suppressed that information, kept it from the jury, and pretended like it never existed at all, in order to get this conviction. And that information itself proved that the weapon that they claimed Leonard used was not the weapon used in those deaths.
JASMINE HEISS: And not only that, the FBI’s efforts to force Myrtle Poor Bear, who was their key eyewitness when extraditing Mr. Peltier to stand trial from Canada where he’d fled — because of very reasonable concerns about the way that he’d be treated by US law enforcement — that was coerced testimony. It came from, as Myrtle Poor Bear testified, months of harassment from FBI agents. This was a woman who was already in fragile mental health, who suffered from alcoholism. Almost all of the other FBI witnesses subsequently recanted their testimony and told additional often harrowing stories of the way in which they’d been harassed, intimidated, terrorized by the FBI.
I think that knowing not only this pattern of abuse but the fact that, as you mentioned, the FBI suppressed key ballistics evidence, the question we have to ask is: what haven’t we seen? By some accounts, there’s an estimated 70,000 pages of additional FBI documents that have never been released regarding this case, although they have been FOIA’d — or if they’ve been released they’ve been redacted so heavily it’s impossible to know what’s in them.
So, why is the FBI so insistent on keeping someone, who they cannot prove committed a crime, in a maximum security prison? And what is it that they’re hiding?
EDDIE CONWAY: Yes. Well, do you have any final thoughts on where this go and what people might need to d?
JASMINE HEISS: Absolutely. I thank you so much for asking. I would say anyone who is in Washington, DC, or the DC area, should join us at 4:00 p.m. outside of the White House to ask President Obama to take a stand on this case, and to ensure that Mr. Peltier doesn’t die behind bars.
But, for all of those who are looking at this case, who are watching, who either know about political prisoner issues or are learning about this case for the first time, can still make their voices heard. Again, we know that President Obama will look at this application personally. So, you should call the White House today and tell them that you support clemency for Mr. Peltier. You can also go online at AmnestyUSA.org/LeonardPeltier, and sign the online petition to take action today.
I would also say, you yourself know, Mr. Conway, that being held in a prison, being isolated from the world, is a measure that’s meant to make people feel alone and feel forgotten, and particularly in these next months as we wait for political courage from the President and from the Department of Justice, I would encourage folks to write to Mr. Peltier and let him know that he is not forgotten and that he is not alone.
EDDIE CONWAY: And I think that’s very important. That definitely helps people survive these kinds of ordeals. Okay, keep me posted, keep us posted, so we can update this, whatever may happen. Thank you for joining me.
JASMINE HEISS: My absolute pleasure, and I hope the next time we talk it’s to celebrate Leonard’s release.
EDDIE CONWAY: I hope so, too. All right. Thank you for joining this special edition of Rattling the Bars.