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OP - ED
May 30, 2001
The sentences imposed on the Rev. Al Sharpton and others did not fit the offense
The Rev. Al Sharpton may have accomplished what neither Gov. George Pataki nor scores of others have been able to achieve in recent weeks -- namely, a high-intensity look at the issues surrounding U.S. Navy bombing exercises on the island Vieques .
Last week, the Rev. Sharpton traveled to the Puerto Rican island, accompanied by other New York politicians who also oppose the exercises. They planned not only to demonstrate, as Mr. Pataki had, but also to engage in civil disobedience, a common tactic of the civil rights and Vietnam eras. That meant they were prepared to go to jail for their actions. And they have, for trespassing on Navy grounds and then waiting to be hauled away by authorities.
Because 1 million people of Puerto Rican heritage live in New York City, the Vieques issue is one no New York politician can ignore. Gov. Pataki recognized as much when he visited the island to protest, although he did not join with trespassers. The governor's presence was duly noted in the media, but the issue seemed to fade shortly thereafter. Now the Rev. Sharpton has brought it into the public forum once again, in part because he has been sentenced to 90 days in jail for what ordinarily draws a fine or short jail stay. The federal trial court in Puerto Rico imposed a longer sentence because of the Rev. Sharpton's prior conviction for civil disobedience in 1989 on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who visited the Rev. Sharpton in the Brooklyn jail where he is finishing out his sentence, spoke for many when she questioned the severity of his punishment. For his part, the Rev. Sharpton has begun a hunger strike that he says will last until he and three other politicians jailed with him are released. The others being held in Brooklyn on 40-day sentences are Assemblyman Jose Rivera, D-Bronx; Bronx Democratic Chairman Roberto Ramirez; and New York City Councilman Adolfo Carrion Jr.
The Rev. Sharpton has called his sentence unjust and is appealing it in a Boston court. Given the peaceful nature of the protest, his objection seems justified. Most of those arrested for civil disobedience on Vieques have been fined $1,000 or sentenced to time served. That punishment seems appropriate to the offense.
It is easy to understand why prosecutors and the court are running out of patience and cracking down. Not only have protests increased in recent weeks, but the presence of such high-profile demonstrators like Gov. Pataki have turned the national spotlight on them. But now the very media glare can only intensify, thanks to the Rev. Sharpton's plight.
In any case, there can be no excuse for prosecutors or a judge to single out one group of trespassers for special punishment because of who they are. That turns equal justice under the law on its head. Whatever one thinks of the bombing exercises, they should not be used as a pretext for arbitrary justice -- and the appeals court should say so.
LETTERS: THE NEW Y)RK TIMES
June 1, 2001
To the Editor:
Re "Protesting the Vieques Bombing" (editorial, May 25):
I take issue with your criticism of the federal judge in Puerto Rico who sentenced those who broke the law to serve jail time. Your editorial also does not mention readily available facts.
The sarcastic recommendation that the Navy should repair its fences surrounding federal property in Vieques doesn't note that the United States government spent nearly $2 million just in the last year to replace or repair more than four miles of fence line damaged by trespassers.
(Rear Adm.) S. R. PIETROPAOLI
United States Navy