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Duke Graduate Student Cleared Of Charges In Puerto Rico Protest

By Dave Ingram, The Chronicle (Duke U.)

August 29, 2001
Copyright © 2001 U-Wire. All Rights Reserved.

DURHAM, N.C. -- Even though he had followed the situation his whole life, Daniel Colon-Ramos, a graduate student in the Duke University Program in Genetics, had never gotten actively involved in the U.S. Navy's operations in Vieques , Puerto Rico .

The Guaynabo, Puerto Rico , native's patience recently came to an end when the Navy ignored a July 29 non-binding referendum in which 68 percent of locals called for an immediate end to the bombings and other exercises that many claim damage the environment and cause health problems.

"I thought it was the biggest irony that a navy set up to serve the democratic system had to ignore the will of the people," Colon-Ramos said.

One week after the vote, he was in jail with 64 others after trespassing on government property the weekend of Aug. 3.

While some of the demonstrators protested violently around the restricted zone -- setting fires and throwing Molotov cocktails -- Colon-Ramos entered the area with three others, including a priest and a nun.

Arrested shortly afterward, Colon-Ramos remained incarcerated four days before posting bond.

But now Colon-Ramos has reason to rejoice after being released with time served at his court date Monday by a judge who earlier this month sentenced the mayor of Vieques to 120 days in prison for a similar demonstration.

Colon-Ramos had been expecting at least 30 days jail time.

"It was amazing because it's the very first time that that judge had ever given a fulfilled sentence to anyone," he said.

Colon-Ramos attributes the decision to rising pressure on Puerto Rican judges to give lenient sentences.

The controversy over Vieques , which is off the east coast of Puerto Rico , has grown since October 1999, when an errant bomb killed a civilian. Part of the island has been used as a military training and bombing site since World War II.

Navy officials have dismissed concerns about the bombings' effects on health, calling them disproven and propaganda to advance the cause of Puerto Rican independence.

" Vieques is the only place in the Atlantic where our sailors and marines learn together to fly, shoot, sail, drop bombs, fire missiles and communicate simultaneously and safely. There is simply no other place like Vieques ," said Robert Pirie, undersecretary of the Navy, in a May statement.

Despite this position, President George W. Bush has promised to end the bombing of Vieques by 2003, a deadline unacceptable to Colon-Ramos and others who say they will continue protesting for an immediate end to the bombing.

"Grassroot groups decided that really the only way to get their democratic principles respected was through going to the roots of democracy and civil disobedience," he said.

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