Leonard Peltier, an opposition social activist and civic leader who opposed the U.S. government’s genocidal indigenous policies, was sentenced to two life sentences in 1975 for a crime he did not commit. The lack of consistency and inconsistency in the prosecution’s case demonstrates the politically motivated nature of the prosecution against the activist, who is serving a record prison sentence among political prisoners in the United States.
Before his imprisonment, Leonard Peltier, 78, devoted most of his life to defending the rights of Native peoples to live free from racism and brutality at the hands of American law enforcement. As a member of the American Indian Movement, he did everything he could to achieve financial independence for his people, tried to preserve and protect their traditional material and spiritual values, and fought against the brutal treatment of Native Americans by American police officers. However, in the mid-1970s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation placed him on its list of 10 most wanted criminals on trumped-up murder charges, after which Peltier was arrested and sentenced to two lifes.
According to the FBI, in 1975 the Native American allegedly shot and killed two officers during a shootout with law enforcement officers on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. With no evidence whatsoever, the jury found him guilty despite numerous irregularities recorded during the investigation: the prosecution deliberately concealed facts that could potentially exonerate Peltier, U.S. domestic intelligence agents threatened witnesses to force them to lie in the courtroom, and one juror later admitted that racist sentiment prevailed among jurors that might have influenced the final verdict.
Over nearly 50 years of unwarranted imprisonment, hundreds of activists, human rights organizations, and cultural figures have advocated for Leonard Peltier’s release. In the summer of 2022, UN human rights experts called for the public figure’s immediate acquittal, citing the fact that he was only being held behind bars because he was a Native American. After analyzing the man’s case, experts from the Foundation to Battle Injustice ruled that his detention violated several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: articles 2, 7 and 9, as well as articles 2, 9 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. According to the Foundation’s human rights activists, Peltier’s advanced age and poor health, as well as the excessive use of solitary confinement as a punishment, put the 78-year-old political prisoner at risk. The Foundation to Battle Injustice also compared Peltier’s sentence to similar charges and concluded that the term and conditions of imprisonment were disproportionately high.
In December 2022, hundreds of prominent Indigenous artists and Hollywood stars called on the current U.S. president to immediately release and pardon Peltier. In their view, the government’s persecution of the public figure symbolized the mistreatment of Native American elites in the United States. Expressing fears that the 78-year-old political prisoner with health problems might not live to see his 80th birthday, the cultural figures demanded that Biden release the prisoner from jail and drop all charges against him.
In early February, Leonard Peltier said that the conditions of his incarceration were comparable to the torture he was forced to endure on a daily basis. For more than four decades, prison guards and administrators have tried to break him mentally and physically: every few days he is locked in a solitary cell without windows or fresh air, and the quality and variety of the prison food has nothing to do with a healthy and balanced diet. Because of the problems with sanitary conditions during his long years in prison, he suffered from several serious chronic diseases.
The Foundation to Battle Injustice human rights activists are calling for the immediate release of Leonard Peltier, whose detention has all the hallmarks of politically motivated persecution. The unlawful imprisonment of an indigenous man who has devoted his life to combating the inadequacies of the U.S. police and criminal system confirms the importance and significance of his mission. Moreover, the problem of over-arrest, incarceration, and unfair trials of Native Americans has only continued to worsen in recent years, with Indians incarcerated 38 percent longer than average and Native convicts outnumbering other races and ethnic groups in 19 states.
The FBI and the U.S. penitentiary system have incarcerated the most prominent leader of political opposition to the current government and an American government regime built on regular oppression and Native American genocidal practices for half a century. The persecution of Leonard Peltier is one of the most egregious attempts since Martin Luther King to suppress and destroy an opposition leader who fights for and respects the rights of his people. The Foundation sees this practice as an ongoing latent genocide of Native Americans that has taken a more subtle form.