UN group calls for release of Leonard Peltier, alleges anti-Native American bias in prolonging imprisonment

Leonard Peltier was sentenced to life in prison after claims he killed two FBI agents. But questions linger about alleged misconduct during his trial.

A "Free Leonard Peltier" sign seen in Detroit in March 2009.
Contributed / Wikimedia Commons
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NEW YORK — A United Nations document is calling for the United States to release a Native American activist who was convicted of killing two FBI agents during a controversial trial.

In a 17-page document made public last month, an arbitrary detention working group for the U.N. Human Rights Council said the U.S. government should free Leonard Peltier. It also said the country should conduct an independent investigation into whether the Native American’s rights were violated.

Peltier was convicted in 1977 in connection to the killing of FBI Special Agents Ronald Arthur Williams and Jack Ross Coler during a shootout in June 1975 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The trial was held in Fargo.

Two of his co-defendants were found not guilty due to self-defense.

Despite providing alibis that he did not participate in the shooting, Peltier, who was part of the American Indian Movement meant to protect Native Americans against civil rights violations and racism, was given two consecutive life sentences.


Peltier, 77, is being held at a prison in Florida.

Some have alleged trial misconduct in Peltier’s case, including claims that witnesses were coerced into testifying against him.

The working group alleged the FBI targeted Peltier because of his political activism in promoting Native American rights and said Bureau agents harassed Peltier before his arrest.

The group questioned several aspects of Peltier's legal proceedings, including why his case wasn't overseen by a judge who presided over the trials of his co-defendants. Instead, his case was given to a judge whose previous criminal case was overturned due to using anti-Native American stereotypes in jury instructions, the document said.

The U.N. group also alleged Peltier was not properly evaluated for parole, and his incarceration has been arbitrarily prolonged. The document attributed that, in part, to anti-Native American bias.

The U.S. government has denied that it violated Peltier's rights, according to the document.

The U.N. document noted Peltier has multiple health conditions that cannot be treated appropriately while he is incarcerated. He contracted COVID-19 in January, and he is at "heightened risk of death" due to complications caused by the virus, the document said.

"Mr. Peltier poses no threat to anyone," the document said. "There is no legitimate purpose for the government to continue his detention. Doing so, despite the lack of a legitimate purpose, amounts to arbitrary detention. ..."


Former President Bill Clinton considered granting clemency to Peltier in 2000, but that was protested when roughly 500 FBI agents marched near the White House. The decision has been passed on to several presidents until former President Barack Obama denied Peltier clemency in 2017.

In a statement to The Forum, the FBI said it is against Peltier's release.

"We must never forget or put aside that Peltier intentionally and mercilessly murdered these two young men and has never expressed remorse for his ruthless actions," the FBI said. "Peltier's conviction, rightly and fairly obtained, still stands, and has withstood numerous appeals to multiple courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. No amount of prison time changes the facts surrounding Coler and Williams' deaths, and commuting Peltier's sentence now would only serve to diminish the brutality of his crime and the suffering of their surviving families and the FBI family."

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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