SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – A Puerto Rican nationalist who is the last of his group still serving time for his role in a violent struggle for independence for the U.S. territory unexpectedly returned to the island Thursday to serve the remainder of a sentence commuted by outgoing President Barack Obama.
Oscar Lopez Rivera disembarked from an American Airlines jet that landed in the capital of San Juan and was placed under house arrest at his daughter’s apartment. He was originally scheduled to be released from prison in Terre Haute, Indiana on May 17.
“Most prisoners go to halfway houses,” said U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who had requested and helped secured the transfer of the 74-year-old Lopez. “He got to go home to be with his daughter. That’s pretty unusual.”
Gutierrez said the warden agreed to Lopez’s transfer on the condition that it would be discreet. He and others including San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin picked up Lopez in Indiana before dawn on Thursday and flew with him to Puerto Rico.
“I didn’t think it would be this easy,” Gutierrez said.
Lopez’s arrival was kept secret until just hours before his plane touched down, which angered supporters.
“They wanted to deprive him of a hero’s welcome,” said Mady Pacheco, 64, who brought her 4-year-old niece to the airport. “I wanted her to witness this historic moment.”
Lopez had been sentenced to 55 years in prison after he was convicted on one count of seditious conspiracy, and he was later convicted of conspiring to escape from prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. He served nearly 13 years in solitary confinement, and Obama commuted his sentence last month.
Federal officials did not immediately respond to questions about the reason for his unexpectedly early release.
Lopez was a member of the ultranationalist Armed Forces of National Liberation, which claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings at public and commercial buildings during the 1970s and ’80s in New York, Chicago, Washington and other U.S. cities. The group’s most notorious bombing killed four people and injured more than 60 at New York’s landmark Fraunces Tavern in 1975. Lopez was not convicted of any role in that attack, but some still hold him responsible because of his ties to the ultranationalist group.
His daughter, Clarisa Lopez, said there were no victims as a result of her father’s actions.
“He’s never killed anyone,” she said. “My father was not accused and he did not participate.”
Some Puerto Ricans opposed his early release, saying that they were pained by it.
“He does not represent the Puerto Rican community and many of us in the island are disgusted and rebuff his actions,” said Evelyn Aimee De Jesus.
Juan Segarra, who was a member of the ultranationalist movement and was pardoned by former U.S. President Bill Clinton 13 years ago, clutched a Puerto Rico flag as he waited for Lopez at the airport.
“Finally! I can’t describe my emotions,” he said as he held back tears. “I spent 17 years in prison. I know what this family reunion is like.”
Lopez’s friends have said he wanted to spend time with his daughter and granddaughter and establish a think-tank that will work on such problems as climate change, the economy and the island’s political status.
Lopez’s attorney, Jan Susler, said he will remain under house arrest until May 17. She said he’s not allowed to talk to the media or to anyone with a criminal record, including other nationalists who served time.