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Clinton offers clemency to activists

President Clinton offered on Wednesday to commute the sentences of 16 Puerto Rican independence activists if they sign agreements renouncing the use of violence. Most belonged to the FALN guerrilla group, which staged some 130 bomb attacks on political and military targets in the United States from 1974 to 1983.

The independence activists also must sign written statements agreeing to abide by all conditions of release set by law or the Parole Commission. Officials said none of those affected were involved in any deaths.

Justice Department spokeswoman Chris Watney declined to explain Clinton's reasons for the decision. She did say the Justice Department, as is customary, submitted a report and recommendation to Clinton, but she declined to describe it.

Prosecutors branded those convicted for FALN _ the Spanish initials for Armed Forces of National Liberation _ activities as terrorists. But in recent months, Puerto Rican and U.S. church leaders, politicians and residents have sent 75,000 signatures to the White House to demand the prisoners' freedom. South Africa's retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu; Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil-rights leader; and three members of Congress are among them.

The decision came to light shortly after Puerto Rico's governor, Pedro Rossello, attended a White House ceremony for Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees, including Isolina Ferre, a Puerto Rican nun recognized for her work with the poor.

Rossello, a proponent of Puerto Rican statehood and long an opponent of clemency for the prisoners, said Clinton "did this in the most prudent and just manner possible."

Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States after the Spanish-American War in 1898. It is a U.S. commonwealth that enjoys local autonomy but has no vote in Congress or for president. The FALN was committed to independence for the island.

Eleven members of the group would be released immediately from prison if they agreed to Clinton's conditions; two others would have to serve additional prison time before release; and three would have the unpaid balance of their criminal fines canceled, according to a Justice Department announcement.

One of the two who would have to serve additional time also would have the unpaid balance of his fine waived. Of the three whose only clemency offer was a reduction in fine, two already completed their prison sentences in 1994 and the third remains in prison with no reduction in his 15-year sentence.

The 13 original prison sentences for which Clinton offered reductions ranged from 35 years to 90 years. He offered to reduce them to a range of four years to 44 years.

There is precedent for pardons. In 1977 and 1979, President Jimmy Carter pardoned four Puerto Rican nationalists who were convicted in a 1954 shooting attack on Congress that wounded five lawmakers. Carter also pardoned a fifth nationalist who was convicted of plotting to kill President Harry Truman in 1950.