Native American activist Leonard Peltier

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Features, Human Rights, International

by Jamison Maeda

Native American activist and six-time Nobel Prize nominee, Leonard Peltier, has been in prison in the US for 40 years for a crime he claims he didn’t commit. And thousands of people around the world believe him.

“…Leonard Peltier has committed no crime whatsoever,” said former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

In addition to Clark, the list of Peltier’s supporters over the years included Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, Amnesty International, Robert Redford, multiple Native American nations, documentarian Michael Moore, and it goes on. The Soviet Union cited Peltier’s case as an example of human rights abuses in the US.

The US justice system failing poor people and people of color is not news. But even in a climate of institutionalized discrimination and racial prejudice Peltier’s case stands out.

In June of 1975, two undercover FBI agents were killed in a shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the state of South Dakota. In 1976, Peltier was arrested and charged with killing the two agents.

But serious doubts regarding the fairness of his trial persist after more than four decades.

Myrtle Poor Bear who initially claimed to be Peltier’s girlfriend and an eye witness to the shootout later admitted she had never met Peltier but that she was threatened into making false testimony.

A ballistics report revealed the gun the prosecution tied to Peltier did not produce the shell casings found at the scene. But the report was concealed during the trial and was only made public many years later with the help of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Despite having no eye witness to the shootout which involved approximately 30 people, Leonard Peltier was convicted of killing the two FBI agents and sentenced to two life sentences in prison.

Even the judge who presided over Peltier’s case wrote a letter to the US Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs suggesting leniency due to problems with this case.

Supporters worldwide believe freedom is long overdue for Leonard Peltier, and that US President Obama must commute Peltier’s sentence as he has done for nearly 400 others.

For more information about the incarceration of Leonard Peltier, check out the documentary film produced and narrated by Robert Redford Incident at Oglala or read Peter Matthiessen In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, and Jim Messerschmidt’s The Trial of Leonard Peltier.