A question of justice years after a terrorist bombing

As Clinton offers clemency to Puerto Rican nationalists, police injured

Looking directly into the bright klieg lights through dark glasses, Detective Rich Pastorella recounts how nightmares still wake him up in a cold sweat, reminding him of what happened on New Year's Eve in 1982.

A bomb had been found in lower Manhattan. As he and his partner began disarming it, it exploded. Detective Pastorella was blinded, he lost five fingers. He still has shrapnel lodged in his body.

The Puerto Rican independence fighters called the FALN claimed responsibility.

This week, Pastorella and two other New York City police officers maimed by FALN bombs denounced President Clinton's offer of clemency to 16 members of the group, which waged a terror campaign in the United States from 1974 to 1983.

The offer is conditional. The prisoners must renounce violence and agree not to fraternize with former colleagues. Nonetheless, it is sparking a debate among human-rights advocates and law-enforcement officials. The questions are fundamental: They revolve around the nature of justice, the horror of terrorism, the definition of heroism, and the power of politics.

Almost as soon as the offer was made earlier this month, critics attacked the White House for pandering to Hispanic voters in New York, where first lady Hillary Clinton is contemplating a run for Senate.

Supporters of the imprisoned FALN members range from New York's Cardinal John O'Connor to former President Carter to civil rights leader Coretta Scott King. They and other human-rights activists have collected 75,000 signatures calling for the prisoners' release.

The supporters argue that none of the 11 men and five women were ever convicted of injuring or killing anyone. Their crimes ranged from seditious conspiracy to transporting a stolen vehicle across state lines to possession of an unregistered firearm.

Their sentences ranged from 35 to 90 years. Their advocates charge that's far out of proportion to their crimes.

"The political nature of the charges gave way to disproportionate and unjust sentences," says Rep. Nydia Velazquez (R) of New York, who has fought for two decades to win the prisoners' release.

But Ms. Velazquez, like many other of the prisoners' advocates, is disturbed by the conditions that were put on the release. She called them "a continuation of the injustices that began almost two decades ago."

But for Pastorella and other victims of the FALN's terror campaign, the injustice comes in the offer of clemency. To them the prisoners are nothing more than terrorists. Six people were killed and dozens were injured by more than 150 bombs planted by the group during its nine-year campaign.

That New Year's Eve, Pastorella's partner lost an eye and part of his hearing. He underwent surgery to repair his face. Another officer lost his leg in a separate bombing the same night.

"We are the ones with life sentences; we can receive no commutations from our injuries," says Pastorella.

New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir joined with Pastorella, the other injured officers, and representatives from all five of the city's police unions in calling the offer of clemency an outrage.

"The NYPD is vehemently opposed to their release," says Safir. "There are no heroes in that group to me; these are vicious criminals, terrorists who supported the bombing and should stay in jail for the sentences that they were given."

But many of the prisoners' supporters invoke the names of Menachem Begin and Moshe Dayan - Israeli freedom fighters who also openly admitted to violent acts in their fight for an Israeli state.

"Are we going to call many of our revered leaders terrorists because of what they did in the past?" asks Mr. Raphael Martinez, a Puerto Rican journalist who publishes The Free Press, an independent Bronx-based newspaper. "The terrorist of today might be the statesman of tomorrow - what these people wanted was justice, for their people to be free."

Mr. Martinez Alequin says he doesn't blame the officers for their anger and outrage. But he says it's time for forgiveness and that history is on their side.

In 1977 and 1979, Mr. Carter pardoned four Puerto Rican nationalists convicted in a 1954 shooting attack on Congress, in which five lawmakers were wounded. A fifth, accused of plotting to kill President Truman in 1950, was also pardoned.

But such arguments do nothing to change Pastorella's opinion: The 11 FALN members are terrorists. And no one, from his standpoint, should ever cut a deal with a terrorist.

"America is based on freedom of speech, freedom of expression - but not to the point where you can maim, injure, and kill innocent women and children," he says. "You can't say to me they meant no harm."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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