Tucson, Ariz. – Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) on Feb. 17 spoke over the phone with imprisoned American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Leonard Peltier, who is currently being held at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Fla., to inquire about his health and current clemency status. Mr. Peltier tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan.28, complicating existing underlying health conditions for the 77-year-old.
Peltier, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, is serving two life sentences after being arrested under questionable circumstances for the 1975 murders of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. His conviction followed a trial marked by procedural errors and a lack of evidence. Mr. Peltier has maintained his innocence since his arrest.
During their phone call, Mr. Peltier described his COVID-19 isolation at the Coleman facility, including difficulties receiving adequate medical attention and gaining access to basic needs, like water. Grijalva noted the blatant disparities between his own experience with COVID-19 care and Mr. Peltier’s. Grijalva also emphasized the need for the federal prison system to improve its health care system and resources to address the ongoing pandemic.
Throughout Mr. Peltier’s more than 45 years in federal detention, he has endured long periods in solitary confinement. Mr. Peltier remarked that the isolated and often inhumane conditions he has experienced in prison are not unlike those he survived as child in federal Indian boarding schools.
Mr. Peltier was an active member of AIM prior to his arrest and remains engaged in activism. AIM is a grassroots movement founded in the late 1960’s to organize activism around issues of systemic poverty, discrimination, and police brutality against American Indians. At the time, AIM was under deep scrutiny by the U.S. government.
Mr. Peltier expressed that he feels hopeful again about his case for clemency in the Biden administration.
In light of Peltier’s COVID-19 diagnosis and the accompanying health risks, Chair Grijalva led eight other members of Congress in sending an updated clemency request letter to President Biden and the U.S. Department of Justice on Feb. 9. Chair Grijalva first petitioned the Biden administration in October of last year.
“Like far too many of his Indigenous brothers and sisters, Mr. Peltier’s history has been fabricated, rewritten, and erased at the hands of the U.S. government,” Chair Grijalva said. “In this case, it is not too late to take a stand against that injustice and move towards making it right. The Biden administration must take this opportunity to correct the record and free Leonard Peltier.”
The full list of signatories on the updated letter includes:
- Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.)
- Rep. Jesús G. “Chuy” García (D-Ill.)
- Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.)
- Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.)
- Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)
- Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.)
- Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.)
- Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)
International support for Mr. Peltier’s release includes over 275,000 signatories on a petition for his clemency. Even former U.S. Attorney James H. Reynolds, who was instrumental in the prosecution against Peltier, has pleaded President Biden for Mr. Peltier’s release. Mr. Peltier’s most recent petition for compassionate release was denied by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons on Feb. 15.
Other individuals and groups who have called for Mr. Peltier’s release include Amnesty International, the National Congress of American Indians, the late Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Parliament, the Belgian Parliament, the Italian Parliament, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rigoberta Menchú, seven other Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, Rage Against the Machine, Pete Seeger, Carlos Santana, Harry Belafonte, Gloria Steinem, and Robert Redford.
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