Any Debt Is Fully Compensated

Melbourne writer and activist Steven Katsineris pens an open letter to President Barack Obama about prisoners in the US.

Dear Mr Obama,

Greetings from Australia. I am writing to you about an issue that I consider very important and very close to my heart, the situation of quite a few long-term prisoners being held in the USA. 

Though I realise putting forward progressive change is hardly ever easy and I know a leader of a country, especially a big power such as the USA must balance many things, your presidency has witnessed some significant policy changes. Among other things, I welcome you’re sensible and enlightened reconciliation efforts in replacing the past frozen and ineffective policy relationships with Cuba and Iran into a new stage, a real step forward in international relations. I also read that you have instigated a reassessment of the position of the island of Puerto Rico, which is another encouraging policy shift. Whatever the risks and outcomes, the past US administration’s policies were futile and untenable with new flexible thinking required. 

I noted that these changes included some expressions of goodwill, such as the release of prisoners held by the USA, Cuba and Iran. I think this was a very welcome, humane and compassionate gesture by all the nations involved. A similar prisoner’s issue is the plight of several long-term prisoners held in the USA. These prisoners are imprisoned for their political beliefs, for their former associations or actions. They are in prison due to their activism during the Civil and Human Rights campaigns, the anti-war and anti-apartheid movements, support of the liberation struggles in Latin America and Africa, as well as their participation in the Black/New African, Native American, Puerto Rican, Chicano and other minority’s social movements in the era of the 1960s and 70s. Some people, like me believe it is apt to call these people political prisoners. 

The 1960s and 70s was a time of great upheaval, as minority peoples who were marginalised, discriminated against and abused organised themselves and fought back against entrenched racism, injustice and discrimination. These oppressed and powerless people became empowered by the ideals of equal rights, fairness and freedom. They bravely imagined and demanded radical changes and they stood up and struggled for a better world. 

Alarmed by these emerging movements in pursuit of their rights the powerful and the privileged elites fought back. The demands for respect, equality and for their civil and human rights by minority peoples were often met with violent opposition by racist groups and some in the dominant power structures. Several militant organisations were the subject of harsh repression and many leaders and hundreds of rank and file members were killed, arrested, framed or entrapped in covert operations against dissent. Using a variety of suppressive measures, brute force, deception, repressive laws, frame-ups and coercion the intelligence, police, military and paramilitary forces conducted a campaign to crush these progressive movements. One component of this strategy was the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program known as COINTELPRO. 

I can understand in those turbulent times, how some of those passionate, principled people seeking fundamental change could be caught up in the circumstances and feel distraught and angry. And some came to believe that the only way to defeat the powerful forces against them and implement real change was take direct action and fight back against an unjust system. I’m not excusing the actions that some of these people took, but trying to put it in the context of those chaotic and difficult times that they were swept up in. These are highly ethical people motivated by genuine, deep concern for the welfare of other people and for the planet. 

While the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa and many other conflicts have ended and political prisoners in a number of places have been released, in the USA there are still political prisoners from this era in jail. 

For instance, the cases of long time activists Leonard Peltier and Lopez Rivera, both 71 years old, are among dozens of people incarcerated for actions they took as part of progressive and radical social movements. Leonard Peltier has served more than 40 years in prison and Oscar Lopez Rivera has been imprisoned for over 33 years. 

Peltier is considered by the American Indian Movement to be a political prisoner and has received support from individuals and groups including Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta MenchĂș, Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama), Zack de la Rocha, the European Parliament, the Belgian Parliament, the Italian Parliament, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Rev. Jesse Jackson, The National Congress of the American Indians, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Jackson Browne, Danny Glover, Michael Moore, Mos Def, Rubin Hurricane Carter, Margo Thunderbird, Bill Miller and Tom Poor Bear, among others. 

Those calling for Oscar Lopez Rivera’s release include the Puerto Rican government, the Puerto Rican Governor, politicians from all Puerto Rican political parties, prominent Puerto Rican artists, actors, sports people, singers such as Ricky Martin, 10 Nobel Peace Prize winners, Coretta Scott King, former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Amnesty International, American politicians, as well as an international coalition of human rights, religious, labour and business leaders. 

Another is the case of Sundiata Acoli, a New Jersey appeals court ruled that the state had unfairly denied parole to him and that the former Black Panther and human rights activist should be released on parole. He remains in prison as New Jersey authorities appeal the decision. The 79-year-old former NASA employee has been in prison since 1973, serving 38 years, with many of those years in solitary confinement. 

Many others, such as Herman Bell, Romaine Chip Fitzgerald, Mondo We Langa, Ed Poindexter, Robert Seth Hayes, Kamau Sadiki, Sekou Kambui, Jalil Muntaqim, Mutulu Shakur, Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, Russell Maroon Shoats, have been in prison for more than 40 years. They are just some of America's longest held political prisoners. There are also the cases of Mumia Abu Jamal (61), Jaan Laaman (67), both imprisoned for over 30 years among others. 

The convictions against many of those imprisoned were obtained despite these various cases having a lack of evidence, or evidence withheld, violations of legal rights and other inconsistencies. These people fought for the powerless, repressed, exploited and colonized peoples and they paid a heavy price, punished with many sentenced to excessively long prison terms, held in isolation and treated in other cruel and appalling ways for their opposition to the repressive and immoral policies. 

Surely any debt they owed society must be fully compensated for by now. As you have done in promoting reconciliation with Cuba and Iran, I urge you to please give careful and compassionate consideration to look at these prisoners’ cases and support the same spirit of reconciliation with sections of the American community that these people belong to.

These prisoners have been separated from their loved ones and their communities for far too long and freeing them will greatly help heal, repair and end a dark and divisive era in the history of your nation. The plight of these brave, committed men and women who have dedicated so much to helping others and trying to make the world a better place is unjust and pointless. They don’t deserve to rot in prison, to fade away and die there, when despite their ages they have many worthy talents and skills and still so much more to offer their society and country. I would implore you to pardon them and let them finally go free. 


Yours Sincerely, 

Steven Katsineris,

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