Springfield, Mo. — Leonard Peltier says he was surprised to learn of the Soviet Union's interest in his case, but counts it a solid plus in focusing renewed US attention on its merits.
''In a way I have a lot to thank (President) Reagan and his cold-war propaganda for,'' Mr. Peltier said in a recent interview in the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners here in Springfield, where he was transferred last spring after staging a hunger strike in the US penitentiary in Marion, Ill.
''If Reagan hadn't said things about (Soviet dissident Andrei) Sakharov, the Russians probably wouldn't have come out with something about me.''
Peltier, a Chippewa Sioux and a one-time leader in the American Indian Movement, was convicted in April 1977 on two counts of first-degree murder in the 1975 shooting deaths of two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The only one of four Indians charged in the case to be convicted, he was sentenced to two life terms.
He and his lawyers (including well-known defense attorney William Kunstler) have argued from the beginning that he is innocent, that the government was bent on a conviction at any cost, and that the circumstantial evidence against him was manipulated to make him appear guilty.
A new hearing, relating to the possibility of a new trial, has brought Peltier back into the news this week.
At least two of the government's key witnesses changed their accounts of events between the time they testified before the grand jury and at the subsequent trial. And Myrtle Poor Bear, who once signed affidavits saying she was Peltier's girlfriend and had heard him conspire to kill the agents - a key factor in Peltier's 1976 extradition from Canada for the trial - later recanted and said she had been forced to sign the statements.
In upholding Peltier's conviction in 1978, judges in the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals said FBI tactics used suggest ''a clear abuse of the investigative process.''
This is a case long championed by human rights activists, including Amnesty International. The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee was begun in the late 1970s as an educational and fund-raising group and now works with more than 25 Peltier support committees in various states, says AI spokeswoman Candy Hamilton.
And a year ago, a group of 50 US congressmen urged that a new trial be held on the basis of new evidence obtained by Peltier defense attorneys under the Freedom of Information Act. The hearing on ballistics evidence recovered under that law began this week in Bismarck, N.D. Peltier was in attendance.
It was Peltier's six-week religious fast last spring that apparently intensified the Soviet Union's longtime interest in the case and eventually led to a more liberal policy on press interviews with the prisoner. At about the same time, Mr. Sakharov, a Soviet physicist and human rights activist confined by Soviet authorities to the closed city of Gorky, was reported to be on a hunger strike in an effort to have his wife sent abroad for medical treatment.
Just as President Reagan then urged Soviet authorities to allow the trip as a ''humane'' gesture, so an appeal to the White House on Peltier's behalf last June from four Soviet Nobel Prize-winners urged Mr. Reagan to ''show the humaneness you want to see in others'' by stopping the ''violation of human rights'' in Peltier's case. The US State Department promptly accused the Soviet news media of distorting the case to divert attention from Sakharov, and stressed the nature of Peltier's conviction and the fact that he had by then ended his hunger strike.
My visit to the red brick prison hospital where Peltier has been assigned since May begins along a road surrounded by acres of green grass and is stopped first at a concrete post near the parking lot. A voice on a loudspeaker asks the purpose of my visit and inquires if I am carrying guns, knives, or narcotics.
Once registered with the front desk, I am led by Paul Taylor, executive assistant to the warden, through two locked doors, along a corridor of offices decorated by inmates' paintings. We take an elevator down, and pass through more locked doors into a small conference room with two high windows.
Peltier, already there, rises to shake hands. The interview, a little over a week ago, lasts well over an hour, involves just the two of us. Mr. Taylor sits well outside the locked door behind me.
Peltier appears healthy, mentally alert, and reasonably relaxed, laughing occasionally when something struck him as funny. Dressed in khaki shirt and trousers and answering questions in a direct but soft-spoken manner, he explains that his fast in the Marion facility was to protest his lack of freedom to practice his religion in a group setting.
He says there were also beatings at that institution after two guards were killed by inmates there last October in another cellblock. He says he was later beaten by guards after passing bread to a fellow inmate.
John Clark, executive assistant to the warden at Marion, says: ''We adamantly deny that any inmate has been beaten or brutalized.'' He notes that ''not one (such) incident has been substantiated,'' either through internal or outside (FBI or congressional) investigations.
Mr. Clark does confirm, however, that a number of restrictions on inmate freedoms, including the practice of religion in groups and, for a brief time, access to religious materials, were imposed after a series of incidents at the prison that led to a number of guard and inmate injuries. It is a maximum-security institution, he explains, which houses 350 of the nation's ''most disruptive'' prisoners.
''We run a very tightly controlled operation based on our tragic experience, '' says Clark. But ''this was not an emotional reaction to an isolated incident.''
Yet Donna Kolb, one of several Carbondale, Ill., lawyers representing a number of Marion inmates, says a suit filed in June alleges that there have been more than 90 beatings or forced searches at the penitentiary since last fall and that the permanency of the ''lockdown'' restrictions constitutes ''cruel and unusual punishment.'' Peltier is a plaintiff in that suit on the basis of his complaint about lack of religious freedom.
In the interview with this reporter, Peltier said that after his transfer to Springfield he decided to begin eating again in response to pressure from the Indian community, a brief phone call from then-presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, and because he did not relish the prospect of being force fed. ''He never got medically to the point where that became an issue,'' Paul Taylor insists.
Although insisting that conditions here are ''not much better'' than those in Marion, Peltier notes that since the transfer here he has met twice with Indian spiritual leaders, who have conducted a sacred pipe ceremony with him without event.
''There was no big escape plan; all we did was pray.'' Also, he says, he is allowed to make 10-minute social phone calls several times a week.
He calls his lawyers almost every day to check on legal progress. ''They get a little tired of hearing me say, 'What's happening?' ''
Over the seven years that he has been behind bars in the United States, Peltier says he has been visited by all but one of his eight children. He is currently allowed five hours of exercise and three showers a week, practices confirmed by Taylor.
Peltier says he is kept alone in a cell which he refers to as ''the hole.'' Taylor says Peltier's single cell (Springfield also has double cells) is standard size and that Peltier can converse with other prisoners nearby. In fact , Peltier says he has recently taken up pastel art in his cell (he got A's in school in that subject) and says inmates often ask as they pass by, ''Gee, did you do that?'' He says he has also been reading a number of biographies, histories, and novels, including the works of British author James Clavell.
Brought up on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota in the ' 40s and '50s under conditions he describes as ''very, very deep poverty,'' Peltier says he will go back to pressing for fairer treatment for the American Indian just as before his arrest, if and when he is freed.
''I keep hearing every day that things haven't changed,'' he says. But he says is now more intelligent, educated, and ''mellow'' than he was before - and ''I'd try not to repeat the mistakes I've made.''
He hopes the hearing now under way in Bismarck will give him a fresh chance to prove his innocence. ''I don't want a pardon. I don't want a parole. I want a new trial.''
It is for that reason, he says, that he is grateful to the Soviets. It was the Soviet Nobel Prize winners' petition to the White House that ''cracked the shell,'' he says.
''All of a sudden, everybody was interested ... and all this interest gives me a lot of hope.''