With a White House deadline looming, 12 Puerto Rican nationalists convicted of sedition and related charges accepted a controversial clemency offer by President Clinton, reports CBS News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts.
The president's offer was extended to 16 former terrorists. Two others have decided to reject it, and two who are not in jail but would pay reduced fines have until Sept. 10 to respond.
The president knew that his deal would be controversial, but his decision to free those who would agree to renounce violence has turned into a major political battle. It has put Mr. Clinton at odds with Republicans and his wife, and called into question whether he can make a decision not tainted with the air of political pandering.
Attorney Jan Susler, who represents the nationalists, says, "Men and women who have dedicated their lives to the freedom of their country deserve to be free."
The FALN - the Spanish initials for Armed Forces of National Liberation - was involved in more than 100 bombings that killed six and wounded dozens throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Those offered clemency were never convicted of shedding blood, but they were still heavily involved in terrorist activities and were sentenced, among other things, for possession of explosives.
Former New York City police officer Richard Pascarella was blinded and lost five fingers on his right hand in an FALN attack. He is outraged that 12 will be released. "They will reorganize," he says. "They will again voice their ideology on the American public with a bomb and with a gun."
In making the offer, President Clinton said the 50-year sentences some of the members were given were out of proportion to their crimes, and that they had more than paid their debt to society.
But Republicans charge the president with trying to curry favor among Puerto Rican voters -- who sympathize with the group -- to boost Hillary Clinton's possible run for the Senate in New York.
"All of a sudden this president grants clemency, and does it on conditions. And he's a president who wants to make a stand against terrorism, so it raises very legitimate questions," says New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani and Mrs. Clinton will likely oppose each other in the Senate race.
The first lady herself complicated matters over the weekend, saying the offer should be rescinded after initially supporting it. That drew fire from both sides -- Hispanic democrats, who felt she abandoned them, and Republicans who claimed the first lady was using her position to manipulate New York politics.