SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera is being released Wednesday from house arrest after decades behind bars in a case that made him a martyr for his supporters but outraged those who lost loved ones in a string of bombings.
The 74-year-old belonged to the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN, an ultranationalist Puerto Rican group that claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings at government buildings, department stores, banks and restaurants in New York, Chicago, Washington and Puerto Rico during the 1970s and early 1980s.
The most famous was the still-unsolved 1975 explosion that killed four people and wounded 60 at Fraunces Tavern, a landmark restaurant in New York’s financial district.
Lopez wasn’t convicted of any role in the bombings that killed six people and injured dozens, but those who lost loved ones hold him responsible since he was considered a leader of the Puerto Rican militant group.
“This guy was convicted of leading the FALN that murdered people,” said Joseph Connor, whose father, Frank, was killed in the Fraunces Tavern attack.
While many Puerto Ricans support Lopez, those seeking independence remain a small group. The option garnered less than 6 percent of the vote in four referendums that Puerto Rico has held on its political status.
Lopez, a Vietnam War veteran who moved to Chicago from Puerto Rico as a child, has long played dual roles of hero and dangerous extremist.
Thousands of ardent supporters are expected to cheer his release at a Wednesday celebration in Puerto Rico and he is to be feted in Chicago later this week. Supporters also plan to honor him at the June 11 Puerto Rican Day parade down New York’s Fifth Avenue with the title Procer de la Libertad — National Freedom Hero.
There has been a campaign to free Lopez over the years, drawing support from Pope Francis, former President Jimmy Carter and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“He has his champions and his critics, but this much is true: He served a lifetime in prison, including 12 years in solitary confinement. Don Oscar will spend his twilight years on the island for which he sought independence, and this feels fitting,” Miranda said in an email.
Lopez was sentenced to 55 years in prison in 1981 after he was found guilty of seditious conspiracy, armed robbery, a weapons violation and four counts of interstate transportation of stolen vehicles. At his sentencing, a federal judge termed him an “unreconstructed revolutionary.”
He later faced an additional 15 years in jail after he was convicted of conspiring to escape from prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton offered Lopez clemency but the inmate rejected the offer because it excluded two associates who have since been released. Then in 2011, the U.S. Parole Commission denied his request for an early release.
President Barack Obama commuted his sentence in late January.
Less than a month later, Lopez was released from prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, and arrived in Puerto Rico to serve the remainder of his sentence under house arrest. He has been staying with his daughter at her home in the capital of San Juan.
The United States seized Puerto Rico from Spain during the Spanish-American War. The island’s 3.5 million residents are U.S. citizens and serve in the military. The U.S. commonwealth receives billions in federal funds but people cannot vote for president and have no vote in Congress.
Lopez has said that upon returning to Puerto Rico he wanted to spend time with family and create a think tank to work on issues including climate change, the economy and the island’s political status.
Associated Press photographer Carlos Rivera Giusti reported this story in San Juan and AP writer David McFadden reported from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. AP writer Colleen Long in New York contributed to this report.