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Senator Brian Schatz Presses Merrick Garland On Clemency For Leonard Peltier

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) on Tuesday unexpectedly pressed Attorney General Merrick Garland on clemency for Leonard Peltier, the Native American rights activist who has been in prison for 46 years without any evidence that he committed a crime.

“What is your position on clemency for Leonard Peltier?” Schatz asked Garland, who was testifying before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee about President Joe Biden’s 2023 budget request for the Justice Department.

Garland punted, instead talking about the formal process a clemency petition has to go through.

“Applications go to the pardon attorney, the pardon attorney makes recommendations through the deputy attorney general to the president,” he said. “So I’m not going to comment on that now.”

“Can you comment on where we are in the process?” Schatz followed up.

Garland said he didn’t even know if Peltier had filed a clemency application. (He has.)

“I mean, I’ve read about this in the press,” said the attorney general. “So I don’t know anything more about it than what I’ve read about in the press.”

The Hawaii senator still didn’t let Garland off the hook.

“This doesn’t cross your desk?” he asked.

“Certainly not as an initial or even secondary matter. This goes to the pardon attorney and then the deputy attorney general,” Garland replied. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t be involved, but it certainly has not crossed my desk.”

The attorney general’s comments were generally pretty weak on the subject of clemency for Peltier. But what was remarkable was that Garland faced questions about Peltier at all, a sign that renewed momentum for Peltier’s release has reached a level where a U.S. senator feels it is pressing enough to bring it up during an otherwise-unrelated Senate budget hearing.

What was also remarkable was hearing Garland say he doesn’t know anything about Peltier beyond what he’s read in the press. Peltier is one of the most high-profile inmates in the country and has been fighting for clemency for decades. The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office put him in prison in 1977 for murdering two FBI agents — based on lies, threats and no proof that he committed a crime.

To give a sense of just how sensitive his imprisonment is, when HuffPost recently emailed the U.S. pardon attorney’s office with a process question about Peltier’s petition for clemency, the FBI unexpectedly wrote back. It said it strongly opposed Peltier’s clemency and provided an unsolicited statement that was full of misinformation about Peltier’s case.

Peltier has maintained his innocence for decades, even when it likely prevented him from being paroled. International human rights leaders, senators, members of Congress, tribal leaders, celebrities and others have called for releasing him.

Schatz, who is the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, is one of two senators who has recently pressed Biden to let Peltier go home. The other is Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Numerous members of Congress also wrote to the president in February urging clemency for Peltier.

Also, if it’s true that the U.S. attorney general only knows about Peltier based on what he’s read in the press, he’s obviously a regular HuffPost reader since we’ve been aggressively reporting on Peltier’s case for months. Hi, Merrick!