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Sunday, May 30, 1999

The Nelson Mandela of America

Imprisoned native leader Leonard Peltier finally allowed to meet Sun columnist in Leavenworth lockup
By PETER WORTHINGTON -- Toronto Sun
Leonard.jpg
Peter Worthington photo
Hard Time ... Leonard Peltier stands beside a window of
Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas


 LEAVENWORTH, Kansas -- The prisoner who's dubbed the North American Nelson Mandela seemed pleased to see me.

 At first I had been refused access to Leonard Peltier, the Ojibwa-Sioux serving two life sentences in the maximum security federal prison at Leavenworth for the death of two FBI agents at South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reserve in 1975.

 I had visited Peltier twice before, in 1992 and 1995 when, after looking into the case at some length, felt -- along with others -- that he was framed by the FBI and the "system" that wanted someone, anyone, punished for the shooting deaths of agents Ron Williams and Jack Coler in the range war of those turmoiled times.

 Without explanation, Leavenworth's warden, J.W. Booker, changed his mind after I wrote a lengthy article equating Peltier with Nelson Mandela. I had speculated that he was denied visitors because his health was worsening and authorities wouldn't be unhappy if he died in prison.

 The Mandela parallel is apt. Mandela was 27 years in South African prisons before world pressure got him freed. Peltier is into his 24th year in prison for murders that the FBI and prosecutors now admit "we don't know who fired those shots." He has a form of lockjaw that prevents him from eating properly. His jaw is atrophied at a half-inch opening. He is denied specialist treatment.

 Like Mandela, Peltier's sole motivation is working for his people, whom he sees as disadvantaged (to put it generously). He was a member of AIM (the American Indian Movement) in the mid-'70s which the FBI, somewhat hysterically, branded "subversive, extremist with a record of violence" and likely Communist.

 Last week I visited Peltier, first getting a guided tour of Leavenworth, courtesy of the prison's executive assistant, Bob Bennett. It is a remarkable prison of some 1,800 inmates and 600 staff, where the average sentence is around 20 years -- a city within walls, without women, where the pace is slow, amenities impressive, security phenomenal.

 Peltier has aged since our last meeting, but seemed robust. As usual, he was optimistic about efforts being made on his behalf. A week earlier he'd met Danielle Mitterrand, widow of France's former president, who urged executive clemency. The day after my visit he was to be interviewed by CNN (which had previously been denied access). Soon he's scheduled to meet delegates from the European Parliament, which has also urged his release.

 Peltier was puzzled and upset that Canada's Justice Minister Anne McLellan had recently responded to Reform Party questions that at his extradition hearings in 1976 no one had lied and "there is no evidence of any fraud in the extradition process."

 In fact, fraud illuminates the extradition. A sworn affidavit by one Myrtle Poor Bear that she was Peltier's girlfriend and had witnessed him kill the wounded FBI agents was (according to Paul Halprin, the Canadian lawyer representing the U.S. government at the extradition hearings) key in getting him extradited.

 It subsequently turned out that Poor Bear was mentally incompetent, had never met Peltier, wasn't on the Pine Ridge reserve that day. Her affidavit was dictated and concocted by the FBI. She had done three affidavits -- the first saying she didn't witness anything. Her other two were a combination of perjury, concocting evidence, fabrication and criminal impropriety.

FALSE AFFIDAVIT

 As well as getting Peltier extradited, the fraudulent affidavit was also a contemptuous violation of the extradition treaty and deliberate ploy to corrupt the justice system. This is not an opinion, it is fact acknowledged by the courts at every level except, it seems, the Canadian government.

 "Why would your justice minister say such a thing that everyone knows is untrue?" Peltier wonders. I told him, as I said on an Edmonton radio station, that McLellan was either ignorant of the case, or not telling the truth.

 McLellan's other evidence, as well as the phony affidavit (which she insisted wasn't phony), was enough to get Peltier extradited -- a view disputed by former solicitor-general Warren Allmand who reviewed the case a couple of years ago for then-justice minister Allan Rock. Today, Allmand says the Poor Bear affidavit was virtually the only reason Peltier was extradited.

 "If it wasn't for that false affidavit I wouldn't have been extradited," says Peltier. "If they'd had other evidence, they (the FBI and prosecutors) would never have jeopardized their careers, their reputations by creating false affidavits the way they did."

 Maybe, but they got away with it.

 Peltier is encouraged that the conservative Reform Party and the socialist NDP in Parliament seem aligned in wanting Canada to protest the fraudulent extradition. "My case should cut across ideological lines," he says. "It's not an issue of left and right, but one of right and wrong."

 Not a day goes by that Peltier doesn't mentally review his case and the range war at Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee in the mid-'70s, when the FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) police, the GOONs (Guardian of Oglala Nation), SWAT teams, vigilantes and National Guard were poised.

 Uranium deposits on Indian land were sought by government. AIM and traditional Indians felt another treaty was about to be violated in the name of expediency. In that time-frame, 60 Indians were murdered -- 47 of them AIM supporters. The wounded exceeded 300. Not one Indian death was investigated. "It was war," recalls Peltier.

 Initially, the FBI put Indians Bob Robideau and Dino Butler on trial for shooting the two FBI agents who had entered the Jumping Bull compound on June 26, 1975, ostensibly to arrest one Jimmy Eagle for allegedly stealing a pair of cowboy boots. It came out at the trial that some 50 FBI agents and police were poised to attack the compound. The jury acquitted the pair, ruling self-defence.

 Peltier still has difficulty understanding how he could have been found guilty of first-degree murder, and then have the FBI and prosecutors admit they didn't know who pulled the trigger and say that Peltier was guilty not of murder, but of aiding and abetting.

 This distinction also confused appeal judges Donald Ross and Gerald Heaney, who said if Peltier had been tried for aiding and abetting, the verdict might have been difficult.

 
Prison Art ... The artwork of Leonard Peltier includes the dramatic "Trail of Tears" depicting Indians being driven from their land.


 IMPROPER TACTICS

 Judge Heaney reluctantly rejected the appeal because he said while it was "possible" the jury would have reached a different verdict had evidence not been withheld, he wasn't sure the jury would "probably" have acquitted Peltier. He lambasted the FBI.

 Judge Heaney later wrote Senator Dan Inouye of Hawaii a letter which he asked be delivered to the president. He said that the government had "over-reacted at Wounded Knee;" that it "must share responsibility" for the violence; that "more than one person was involved in the shooting of the FBI agents;" that the "FBI used improper tactics in securing Peltier's extradition;" and that the president should invoke clemency to let "a healing process" begin.

 An astonishing letter from an appeal court judge. To no avail.

 While Peltier looks robust, his long hair and moustache show traces of white. At age 55, he has no self-pity, his sense of humour is unaffected, but he's in obvious discomfort, if not outright pain. Two operations on his atrophied jaw were botched, the second one in 1996 putting him in a coma for 14 hours and necessitating a total blood transfusion. He's understandably wary of prison surgeons.

 Dr. E.E. Keller of the Mayo Clinic, a specialist in this form of jaw ailment, has seen Peltier's files and thinks he can correct it. But the prison says no -- it's their surgeons or no one. The warden issued a statement that the Medical Centre for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, Missouri, has confirmed Peltier suffers from ankylosis (fusing of the jawbone joints) which "prohibits him from properly opening or closing his mouth."

 Although Peltier refuses further treatment at Springfield, the prison feels his "condition is stable and does not warrant prolonged, intensive treatment." Peltier eats by shoving food through a missing front tooth and mashing it against his teeth with his tongue. Wires from the bungled jaw operation jut into his mouth, causing acute pain.

 "As I'm over 50, I get medical checks every six months, and I always complain about my jaw and headaches and pain on the right side of my face reaching the eye," he says. "But medical staff say there's a standing order they can't discuss my jaw or the pain.

 "I have the beginning of an abscessed tooth at the back, which can't be treated ... I'd like the Mayo Clinic to look at it."

 "Why won't they send you there?" I wonder.

 "The prison says inmates can't dictate treatment. Also, they think I might escape." (Which he once did in 1979.)

 "Would you escape?"

 "Never. It would be a betrayal of my supporters."

 I suggest that his enemies would relish him escaping because it would undermine his campaign for amnesty, which is gaining momentum. Peltier agrees: "I just want my jaw treated, to be able to open and close my mouth, to eat properly, to ease the pain, to be normal."

 Peltier doesn't have the prison shuffle or lethargy one often sees in inmates with no future. He is fatalistic, but not resigned. He's become a leader, a symbol for Indians in the U.S. and Canada.

 

 MOVIE RIGHTS

 These days he's excited because two movies are in the works. One by Steven Segal about his life, the other by an Indian movie company called Smoke Signals, involving Whoopi Goldberg, Winona Ryder and Matt Damon.

 He says: "I'm especially interested in the Indian production -- they've got the rights to Peter Mathiessen's book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. Whoopi seems really keen."

 I suggest that Graham Greene would be a natural to play him. Peltier seems to think he resembles Segal. I joke that perhaps he'd like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. He laughs.

 In Robert Redford's documentary, Incident at Oglala, there's an interview with a masked man identified only as "Mr. X," who claims he did the shooting. What about that?

 "I don't know for a fact who did the shooting, but I think I know," says Peltier. "But I can't say anything. Who'd believe me? Besides, we have a tradition that you don't turn against your own. This wasn't a domestic dispute in 1975, it was a war. A soldier who's captured and turns against his own is ostracized. I want out of prison bad, I want to see my grandkids, I want to live what life I have left in freedom, but I can't point a finger at someone else.

 "What's happened to me is what's been happening to Indians one way or another since the beginning. I didn't create the political climate of the 1970s but I lived it, like all Indians."

 As for the immediate future, Peltier is encouraged that Amnesty International no longer merely urges his case be reviewed for a new trial, but urges immediate and unconditional release -- something he says the Methodist Church in America now advocates.

 He thinks support is growing. Many early supporters who grew weary and frustrated over the years and left, have returned to the cause. The Congress of American Indians and Canada's Assembly of First Nations, representing virtually every North American Indian, plan joint action on his behalf.

 "It would be useful if 500 or 1,000 tepees would arrive in Washington as a show of solidarity. It'd be theatre, but Indians are good at theatre. Tepees and a couple of hundred horses and Indians in traditional dress would have an effect. I know a hundred right now who would go, but who'd pay for it?"

 Who indeed? Peltier facetiously suggests Microsoft's Bill Gates, supposedly the richest man in the world, might sponsor such a rally since he's feuding with the government.

 Peltier is pretty active, despite his jaw and frustrations of getting justice. His paintings are sold or turned into prints which raise money for his defence. Extra money goes into a scholarship fund. For years he's tried to figure a way to paint the legendary Crazy Horse, with whom he identifies and is increasingly compared.

 Any day now Peltier's autobiography comes out -- Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sundance, edited by former National Geographic writer and specialist on Indian culture, Harvey Arden, and published by St. Martin's Press.

 In the meantime, like Nelson Mandela before him, he waits patiently and plans how to work for his people when he's released, something he is convinced is inevitable and predestined.

 Leavenworth prison authorities, on the other hand, note caustically that as far as they are concerned, Leonard Peltier will be a free man only when his sentence ends in 2040, when he turns 97.

 

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© Copyright 1999 Sun Media Corporation.
Please do not reproduce without consent of Sun Media Corporation and AICS.

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FREE Leonard NOW!


Letter to me from Anne McLellan
Letter from Anne McLellan to Janet Reno
Canadian release of extradition information
Summary of Canadian extradition information
File review of the extradition
News release Dec. 17, 1976
Comments from Dennis Banks ref: Leonard
CNN/Time "show" about Leonard
LPDC comments about the CNN "show"
News article By PETER WORTHINGTON
Myrtle Poor Bear affidavits
SEND YOUR CLEMENCY REQUEST TO THE PRESIDENT
International Office of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee


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