3 May 2013

AIM Leader Leonard Peltier: 37 Years in Prison Hell

Leonard Peltier is known throughout the world as one of the most prominent political prisoners in the United States. His 37 years of incarceration due to his courageous activism in the American Indian Movement (AIM) has come to symbolize the U.S. rulers’ racist repression of the country’s indigenous people, survivors of centuries of genocidal oppression.

Peltier emerged as a Native American leader in the late 1960s. In response to the hideous oppression he experienced and saw all around him, he became involved in struggles for Native American rights and joined AIM. It was in his capacity as a trusted AIM activist that he came to assist the Oglala Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the mid 1970s. AIM came into the government’s crosshairs because it was attempting to combat the enforced poverty of Native Americans and the continued theft of their lands by the Feds and the energy companies, which were intent on grabbing rich uranium deposits under Sioux land in western South Dakota. The hated Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the FBI turned Pine Ridge into a war zone as they trained and armed thugs to terrorize and crush Indian activists. Between 1973 and 1976, these forces carried out more than 300 attacks, killing at least 69 people.

In June 1975, 250 FBI and BIA agents, SWAT police and local vigilantes descended on Pine Ridge and precipitated a shootout. Two FBI agents were killed, and Peltier and three others were charged. All charges were dropped against one AIM activist, and two others were acquitted as jurors stated that they did not believe “much of anything” said by government witnesses and that it seemed “pretty much a clear-cut case of self-defense” against the murderous FBI-led assault.

The government then went into overdrive to assure a conviction against Peltier. His trial was moved to Fargo, North Dakota, a city with strong bias against Native Americans. The prosecution concealed ballistics tests showing that Peltier’s gun could not have been used in the shootings while the trial judge ruled out any possibility of another acquittal on grounds of self-defense by refusing to allow any evidence of government terror against Pine Ridge activists. In April 1977, Peltier was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to two consecutive life terms.

Successive court proceedings have laid bare the evidence of Peltier’s innocence and of massive prosecutorial misconduct. In a 1985 appeals hearing, the government’s lead attorney admitted, “We can’t prove who shot those agents.” In 1986, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the trial jury could have acquitted Peltier if records improperly withheld from the defense had been made available. In 2003, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals stated, “Much of the government’s behavior at the Pine Ridge Reservation and in its prosecution of Mr. Peltier is to be condemned. The government withheld evidence. It intimidated witnesses. These facts are not disputed.” Nevertheless, in August 2009 the U.S. Parole Commission again turned down Peltier’s request for parole, declaring that Peltier would not be considered for parole for another 15 years! For Peltier, who is now 68 years old, this in effect was a declaration by the state that this courageous man will die in prison.

The long trail of injustice against Leonard Peltier has been documented in the film Incident at Oglala, narrated by Robert Redford, and in Peter Matthiessen’s book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. Decades of unjust imprisonment have not only robbed him of the prime years of his life. They have also taken a devastating toll on his physical well-being as he suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, partial blindness and a heart condition. We join millions around the world in demanding: Free Leonard Peltier now!

* * *

(reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1023, 3 May 2013)

Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.