Obama set for 'pardon frenzy' as he leaves office

Obama set for 'pardon frenzy' as he leaves office
3 min read
08 January, 2017
Two weeks before leaving office, President Obama is expected to gift clemency to hundreds prisoners, including a former Taliban captive and thousands of convicted drug traffickers.
President Obama is set to leave office on Jan 20 [AFP]

A former Taliban captive, thousands of minor drug traffickers, and a Rastafarian prophet could soon be granted clemency by US President Barack Obama as he prepared to leave office in two weeks.

Sixteen years later, Obama is fielding pressure from all sides to grant unlikely pardons or commutations of sentences to people whose supporters say have been unjustly sentenced or sought out by the justice system.

Among them is Bowe Bergdahl, a US Army sergeant held captive for five years by the Taliban before his release in a prisoner swap, who is due to be court-martialed for desertion.

Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist convicted for the 1975 deaths of two FBI agents in what his supporters say was a setup, is also hoping to enjoy Obama's good graces.

Then there's Edward Snowden, who made the shattering revelation in 2013 of a global communications and internet surveillance system set up by the United States.

The 33-year-old, a refugee in Russia, is backed by numerous celebrities like actress Susan Sarandon and singer Peter Gabriel, as well as Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union. 

If Obama fails to pardon Snowden, his supporters say he may face the death penalty under the incoming administration of Republican Donald Trump, who has called him a "terrible traitor".

In another leak case, Chelsea Manning is serving a 35-year sentence in solitary confinement for handing 700,000 sensitive military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, some of them classified.

Even though the White House has dismissed a possible pardon for Snowden and Manning, their supporters are still hoping for a final magnanimous gesture from a president about to leave the constraints of his high office on 20 January.

The US Constitution allows a president to pardon "offences against the United States" and commute - either shorten or end - federal sentences.

Obama has so far granted 148 pardons since taking office in 2009 - fewer than his predecessors, who also served two terms, George W. Bush (189) and Bill Clinton (396).

But he has surpassed any other president in the number of commutations, 1,176.

Some US presidents have used this regal power of leniency in a pointed way near the end of their term in office.

On the last day of his term in 2001, Democratic President Bill Clinton granted pardon in a highly controversial move to late fugitive trader Marc Rich, whose ex-wife had been a major donor to Democrats.

Obama has promised to use his clemency powers to help serve penal justice, rather than to grant special favours.

"I don't think we will see high-profile names on the list of President Obama's final clemency grants," Mark Osler of the University of St. Thomas told AFP. 

"It is most likely they will be the types of cases he has previously commuted: nonviolent narcotics offenders."

He noted that last-minute clemency is a recent phenomenon.

"Up until President Clinton, they usually spread them out over their full term. Hopefully, in the future presidents will return to that practice, which seems less prone to abuse," Osler said.

Presidents can theoretically pardon people before they are even sentenced.

Some have urged Obama to preventively pardon defeated Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state in light of Trump's threats to have her prosecuted.

Obama could also be tempted to grant amnesty to his one-time "favourite general", James Cartwright, who lied to the FBI about his discussions with journalists about Iran's nuclear programme.