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Obama set for clemency frenzy

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Outgoing US President facing pressure to grant pardons

WASHINGTON A Rastafarian prophet, a former Taleban captive and thousands of minor drug traffickers have one thing in common: Their names have been submitted to US President Barack Obama for clemency before he leaves office in less than two weeks.

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 the Democrats.

Today, Mr 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 Taleban 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 Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in what his supporters say was a set-up, is also hoping to enjoy Mr Obama's good graces.

There is also Edward Snowden, who made the revelation in 2013 of a global communications and Internet surveillance system set up by the US.

The 33-year-old, a refugee in Russia, is backed by the Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.

If Mr 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, some of which are classified, to WikiLeaks.

Activists said her sentence is excessive, pointing to the psychological frailty of the transgender soldier who has already made two suicide attempts.


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 Mr Obama, who leaves office on Jan 20.

But both cases present unique challenges: Snowden has yet to be sentenced and merely faces espionage charges in the US, while Manning has an appeal pending before military court.

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

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

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

Most of those who benefited from Mr Obama's clemency were minor drug dealers no longer considered a threat.

Mr 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," Mr 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: non-violent narcotics offenders." - AFP

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