To the FBI, he is a coldblooded killer, rightly locked away for life. But to thousands of human rights activists across Europe, Leonard Peltier is America’s Nelson Mandela, a victim of a great democracy’s racist underside.
A new international campaign to gain a pardon for Peltier is unfolding today on the 20th anniversary of the South Dakota shootout that sent the leader of the American Indian Movement to jail.
Support groups in France, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere are lobbying local and U.S. elected officials, planning a trek across Western Europe and trying to organize a mission to South Africa to enlist the backing of Mandela himself, the political-prisoner-turned-president.
“The entire world knows that Leonard Peltier isn’t guilty,” said Caroline Grenot of the Paris-based Support Committee for American Indians.
In fact, the case is not that clear. Even Amnesty International - the London-based human rights group that for years has questioned the fairness of Peltier’s trial - stops short of proclaiming his innocence. But Amnesty, like other groups, sees Peltier’s case as symbolic.
“There is a widespread perception in Europe, because of the whole history of events, that Indians get a raw deal in the U.S. criminal justice system,” said Angela Wright, an Amnesty staff member who has worked on the Peltier dossier.
Although Peltier has become a cause celebre in Europe, his case has not generated nearly the same attention - or outrage - in the United States.
The case dates back to June 26, 1975, when a shootout erupted at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation between law enforcement agents and AIM activists.
Peltier was one of four Indians accused in the killings of FBI agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler.
Two of the suspects were acquitted in 1976, and the third was freed for lack of evidence. But Peltier was sentenced to two consecutive life terms in 1977 despite vigorous defense arguments that evidence against him had been falsified. Efforts to reopen the case have been ongoing, including a motion in May that was denied.
In Europe, doubts about Peltier’s guilt have evolved into certainty that he should be pardoned. The European Parliament voted 202-24 in December for a resolution urging President Clinton to grant clemency.
In France, more than 300 city and town councils have adopted resolutions supporting Peltier. And 38 members of Parliament have requested, thus far without success, that their government take an official position on the case.
An international day of support for Peltier is planned July 27 in Geneva, Switzerland. A march through France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland is planned for next year.
At the U.S. Embassy in Paris, appeals on behalf of Peltier arrive steadily but not in huge quantities, said spokeswoman Lela Margiou.
“Our response is that the American justice system has judged the case and come up with a verdict,” she said. “The man has had his day in court.”
Over the years, Amnesty International has regularly raised questions about the fairness of numerous trials of black and American Indian activists in the United States.
But Wright said Peltier’s case was distinctive because of the severity of his sentence and the longlasting campaign to free him.
Amnesty has conveyed to the U.S. government its concerns about the case, including questions about ballistics reports.
Peltier has diehard supporters in the United States as well as Europe. Last year 21 Indian leaders walked from California to Washington, D.C., to hand Congress a document demanding clemency for Peltier.
The FBI director. Louis Freeh, responded that Peltier’s guilt “has been firmly established.”
“Leonard Peltier was convicted of grave crimes - two counts of first-degree murder in the execution-style slayings of two wounded, helpless FBI special agents,” Freeh said. “There should be no commutation of his two consecutive terms of life in prison.”