[Pnews] A US Lawyer Who Defends Puerto Rico's Political Prisoners

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon May 4 17:52:19 EDT 2015

    A US Lawyer Who Defends Puerto Rico's Political Prisoners

Posted 4 May 2015 <http://globalvoicesonline.org/2015/05/04/> 13:00 GMT

Jan Susler 
does not like to talk about herself. She makes it very clear at the 
beginning of the interview. A civil rights lawyer, Susler says 
the limelight is reserved for her clients, who are also her friends. “I 
want this to be about Oscar López Rivera 
she explains, referring to the Puerto Rican political prisoner whom she 

But I insist.

Jan Susler has been practicing law for the past 39 years. She 
specializes in prisoners’ rights, police misconduct, and civil rights, 
and has worked at the firm People’s Law Office 
<http://peopleslawoffice.com> in Chicago since 1982. She was born in the 
United States, in Chicago, Illinois, and raised in a small town about 
three hours south, in a predominantly Jewish community with her mother, 
father, and siblings.

She has dedicated most of her professional career to representing Puerto 
Rican political prisoners: men and women who have fought for the 
island's independence from the United States.

She may be from Chicago, but many Puerto Ricans claim Susler as one of 
their own. And now, once again, like during the 1990s, she is at the 
forefront of a protracted battle, advocating for the immediate release 
of Oscar López Rivera 
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Lopez_Rivera>, a 72-year-old man, 
who in May will have served 34 years of a 55-year sentence in US 
prisons, convicted of seditious conspiracy and related offenses.

These are urgent times, but Susler agreed to give me an interview and 
talk a little bit about herself, but more about her clients and friends.

*Global Voices (GV): *Why did you want to become a lawyer?

    *Jan Susler (JS):* Partly it was because I had this great example
    with my dad. We always had dinner as a family, and he would come
    home and talk about his work. He was a general practitioner in a
    small town. He was antiracist and liberal in his views, and helped
    start the legal aid office. He understood that when you live in an
    unequal society you have a role to combat that. My mother also did
    that in her own way, she was an activist. She had a Masters in
    Education, was a teacher, and fought to have schools that offered
    the same education for all children, no matter where they were from.

    Also, I come from a place that was very anti-semitic, Jewish people
    were not allowed to be part of the country club, etc. During
    Christmas in the public schools, they had a lot of religious stuff,
    and I was disturbed by that because I knew that there was a
    separation of church and state. I refused to participate in these
    activities, and became an advocate.

    The other piece was somewhat of an accident of birth. I am a baby
    boomer, so I graduated from high school in 1967, a very hot time in
    the world. I remember sitting on the couch with my father and
    watching the Democratic Convention of 1968, and him saying “Oh my
    God, there is a police riot, they are beating people up.” So I am
    also very much a product of my times. When I was in college, there
    were army tanks. One of the things that inspired me a lot was seeing
    the resistance of the students on campus.

    One other element is that of being a woman. My mother had a college
    degree, and she could not find work when she divorced my father [her
    biological father]. She all of sudden was dumped on the streets, and
    had to figure out a way to support her two children, me and my
    sister. She always told me I had to support myself and not depend on

*GV: *How did you decide to specialize in political prisoners and 
inmates’ rights?

    *JS:* When I graduated from high school I knew I wanted to do civil
    rights work. There was a legal clinic that provided services to
    prisoners in Southern Illinois, and I thought this would be a great
    way to contribute, and they were mostly Black people and people of
    color. This was a very racist part of the state. It was in that job
    that I got involved with the Puerto Rican independence movement and
    political prisoners. I was in the National Lawyers Guild
    <https://www.nlg.org/>, a very progressive organization. In 1980 the
    first wave of Puerto Rican political prisoners was arrested, and two
    of them were sent to a prison where I was doing my work. Michael
    called me and said that he had two clients who were very far from
    their community, and said: “I need you to go there and see them.”
    That was in September 1980. They were Luis Rosa
    <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luis_Rosa> and Carlos Alberto Torres

*GV: *How did that relationship with Puerto Rican political prisoners 

    *JS:* It just grew, many of them were imprisoned in Illinois. And
    then many of them thought I should move to Chicago to be closer to
    the Puerto Rican community. Then I moved to Chicago, became part of
    the People’s Law Office, and became closer to the Puerto Rican
    community, the family of the prisoners, and I started traveling back
    and forth to the island.

*GV: *Do you feel like an adopted Puerto Rican?

    *JS:* Some people say I was born in the wrong place. I love the
    Puerto Rican people, and the country. I respect and admire the
    amazing resistance of the people in the face of hundreds of years of
    colonialism, and I feel very loved and embraced. I feel very
    privileged to be able to have this amazing, close relationship with
    the Puerto Rican people. I am very blessed.

    On the other hand, I am not Puerto Rican, and I feel that the not
    Puerto Rican adds a dimension of the work, for example you would not
    be interviewing me. Some people think how unique and exceptional it
    is that a person from the US is working on this, but I don’t think
    it should be an exception. After all it is my government that is
    colonizing Puerto Rico, and why aren’t more people offended by that
    relationship that is not only anti-ethical but it violates
    international law. At the United Nations Decolonizing Committee I am
    only one of few US people who speaks out for Puerto Rico, and I
    think that US people have an obligation to speak out for the
    injustices the government commits.

*GV: *These are cases that heavily depend on public opinion. What are 
the differences between both battlefields: the courts and public opinion?

    *JS:* The Puerto Rican independence movement and the movement in
    support of the political prisoners movement are two different
    things. The independence movement is heavily involved in the
    campaign to release the prisoners, but the campaign is much broader.
    This involves a very rich working experience to have both. Oscar and
    other political prisoners took a very strong position when they were
    arrested in the Chicago cases, and said they rejected the court’s
    jurisdiction to try them as criminals because of international law.
    In law school you don’t learn how to represent people like that
    (laughs). They don’t teach you how to do creative lawyering when you
    are working with people who don’t want to go to court.

    For example, when Alejandrina Torres
    <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alejandrina_Torres> was put in the
    underground torture chamber called the women’s high security unit in
    Lexington, Kentucky, in 1986. She would not sue in the US courts to
    challenge her prisoner conditions. So how can you be her lawyer when
    she won’t let you go to court? She still has legal rights, but you
    have to figure out how to be a lawyer creatively. This takes you to
    different forums, international tribunals, to conferences, the UN
    Decolonization Committee, all sorts of wonderful experiences and
    places that you advocate in, in a nontraditional way you learned in
    law school.

    In the process, you become part of a movement, and with political
    prisoners this is very important because they are part of the
    movement. Your sensitivity to what your client wants, and your
    sensitivity to what the movement wants helps you develop into a more
    responsible person, and a more responsible attorney. The activism
    piece in combination with the legal avenues that are available is
    how public opinion gets formed.

*GV: *Who is Oscar López Rivera for you, besides being your client?

    *JS:* I will give you one example: my goddaughter just went to
    Puerto Rico for her bachelorette party, and she sent me back a
    picture of an image of Oscar on the streets of Old San Juan. She
    said: “His face is pasted everywhere!”

    I see him as bigger than life, a person who has inspired people to
    come together. When you are faced with someone who is a legend in
    his own time…I went to see him recently, and we are in the sitting
    room, and I am talking about the Summit of the Americas [in Panama,
    from April 10 to April 11]. There is lots of chaos in the sitting
    room. I am sitting with this man in a prison where he does not
    belong, and I am telling this man that his case is an issue in
    Panama. It is the combination of the mundane of being in the sitting
    room, the vending machines, realizing that he will be stripped after
    my visit, and at the same time this very man is being talked about
    among heads of state.

*GV: *How do you see the possibilities of Obama offering clemency to 
Oscar López Rivera before leaving office?

    *JS:* Sometimes people ask me: When is Oscar coming home? And I say,
    that depends on the work we do, not only the lawyers. Obama needs to
    make a political decision, and it needs to be politically convenient
    to his party. And we need to make him understand that this is
    convenient for his party. He has been one of the most stingy
    presidents in modern history in giving commutations and pardons. He
    has been heavily criticized for this. He said recently in an
    interview that he understood that he needed to do that more. This is
    good news.

    I am hoping that our work continues to be as consistent and creative
    as it has been, so we are relentless in keeping Oscar visible,
    because our window is closing. We have to make it known that we need
    Oscar home.

GV: Tell me something we might not know about Oscar López.

    JS: He is somebody I have learned from a lot, not like a teacher,
    but when you share life experiences with someone that you care
    about, you grow. And I have grown enormously from my privileged
    relationship with him.

    He probably does more pull ups and push ups and crunches than many
    of the youngsters around him. He takes very good care of himself,
    because he knows his jailers will not. He takes a lot of
    responsibility for what he eats, which is very difficult in prison,
    and even harder because he is a vegetarian. He is very disciplined.
    He understands how valuable time is. He has his own agenda, read,
    exercise, eat; he corresponds with many people. He is an autodidact,
    and he has a memory that is frightening. He never forgets anything
    he reads, he never forgets anything, he can talk about the history
    of Egypt, about volleyball (she laughs). He understands the world in
    a very complex way. He is a font of knowledge. Yes, so why is he in
    prison? He is a resource to the country, to Puerto Rico, and Puerto
    Rico is being robbed of that resource.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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