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Associated Press Newswires

Puerto Ricans Arrested For Protesting Bombing Exercises Decry Classification Of Their Cases As Terrorism


May 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Eight Puerto Ricans arrested during protests against U.S. Navy bombing exercises are criticizing U.S. prosecutors for classifying their cases as terrorism, saying they were demonstrating peacefully.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported May 16 that the eight were among cases labeled as "terrorism" by U.S. prosecutors.

Several critics, including civil rights lawyers and a U.S. congressman, question the constitutionality of the decision.

"Investigating people according to their political or ideological preferences is against rights of expression, rights of association," said lawyer Luis Guzman Dupont of the Puerto Rico Bar Association.

Francisco Bartolomei, a 59-year-old engineer, said Friday he had been peacefully protesting when he and four other members of the Puerto Rico Independence Party were detained for trespassing on federal lands Jan. 13. Three other protesters were arrested the next day.

"That isn't terrorism," he said. "We're against terrorism."

U.S. Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said he couldn't comment on individual cases, but said local prosecutors decided the classification on "a case-by-case basis."

"The classification codes are meaningless," he said, and are mostly for "record-keeping purposes."

"There's no criminal penalty or sanction that would be carried along with the classification," he said.

Local prosecutors would not comment.

U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat, sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft last week asking him to justify or cancel the terrorism classifications.

"I would like some assurance that the specific American citizens involved in these actions no longer have the word 'terrorist' associated with their names," Serrano wrote. "There is an enormous difference between terrorist activities and demonstrating for something you really believe in."

Protests such as that made by Bartolomei led the Navy to withdraw from the outlying Puerto Rican island of Vieques on April 30, ending nearly 60 years of bombing exercises. Widespread protests involving thousands of people of every political persuasion erupted after two off-target bombs killed a civilian guard on the firing range in 1999.

Between 1999 and this year more than 1,000 protesters were arrested.

Lawyer and pro-independence leader Maria de Lourdes Santiago, who is representing five of the eight arrested in January, said they had served 20 days in jail.

Calling their cases terrorism-related, she said, shows a tendency "to criminalize the independence movement," which is small in Puerto Rico. The party wins about 5 percent of votes in elections where the real competition is between parties that back statehood or the status quo.

The Philadelphia Inquirer used Syracuse University's Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse, a database that draws on U.S. prosecutors' data. The newspaper says on its Web site that many criminal charges brought under terrorism classifications recently "do not involve violent acts or even the threat of violence."

For years, Puerto Rico's police kept files on independence supporters, but halted the practice following a public outcry in the 1980s. The island's Supreme Court declared the files unconstitutional in 1988.

Bartolomei said he now has a copy of his file, and that the new terrorist listing is similarly troublesome.

"It bothers me," he said. "Personally, I don't think it's a mistake."

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