Human Rights Delegation from the US Meets with El Salvador Dignitaries Concerning Prosecution of 13 Organizers and Participants in Demonstration Against Water Privatization Under “Anti-Terrorism” Law. Hearing Scheduled for February 8th, Before Designated Terrorism Tribunal
A human rights delegation from the US will be meeting with the president of El Salvador’s Supreme Court, the government’s Human Rights Ombudsman, the United States Embassy, and representatives of the thirteen being prosecuted and their legal team. The meetings concern the application of El Salvador’s new “Anti-terrorism” law to social protest, a law modeled after the US Patriot Act. A request has been given to meet with Salvadoran President Tony Saca and the Attorney General, as well.
The delegation has been supported so far by letters from US Congressional Representatives Mike Michaud (ME), Baldwin (WI) and Melissa Bean (IL), requesting that officials met with the delegation, whom they will be expecting a report back from. The dates of the delegation are January 19-27, 2008. January 16th is the 16th year anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords. The delegation will be writing a document representing their visit, and will report back to US government representatives, organizations and media on their return. To follow their visit -www.weru.org.
After signing Inter-American Development Bank loans in 1998, opening the door to water privatization, and 2003 free trade agreements, which push the healthcare system towards privatization, the Salvadoran government has faced increasing resistance from a population opposed to shifts in social services. These same populations also have been resisting the plans of foreign trans-national companies to strip-mine rural communities for minerals, like gold.
In a climate of increased popular resistance, in October 2006, the government, approved decree #108, the “Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism”. The law re-writes several articles of the Salvadoran penal code, including elastic language open for subjective interpretation by police and judges, particularly concerning protest activity. As the SHARE Foundation and the Washington Office on Latin America write “In observations addressed to the Legislative Assembly during the law’s deliberation, the office of the Human Rights Ombudsman highlighted several concerns with the law : its failure to establish criteria for a precise definition of terrorism; sentences disproportionate to the severity of the crimes outlined in the law; and the need to ensure that the law would not lead to the criminalization of protest."
The terrorism law additionally abrogates basic tenets of due process and imposes penalties of up to 60 years in prison for infractions that previously were constitutionally protected as freedom of expression.
The government first attempted to apply the law to demonstrators for the Vendors Movement last May. In July, however, fourteen organizers and participants of a mass demonstration against “water decentralization”, seen as the first step towards privatization, were arrested. Thirteen have been charged with “Acts of Terrorism” and await a February 8th hearing before an extra-judicial special tribunal convened for the trial under the terrorism law..Two of the organizers charged are the president and vice-president of the Association of Rural Communities for the Development of El Salvador (CRIPDES), a leading and historic advocacy organization. Additionally charged is an accompanying journalist and driver. All were only on route to the demonstration when arrested. Riot police responded violently to the demonstration, also chasing participants from rural communities through the hills with helicopters, tactics reminiscent of the war. For nearly a month the group was held in “preventative detention” under squalid conditions.
Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, Tutela Legal (the human rights monitoring office of the Archdiocese of San Salvador) have all sharply questioned the arrests, the use of excessive force by police, and the misuse of the antiterrorism law. A YouTube video provides footage of the capture by National Civilian Police of the two CRIPDES executive officers, the journalist, and driver, which underlines the fact that the activity of those arrested was the attempt to attend a political demonstration.
In addition to concern expressed by Salvadoran organizations and human rights monitoring groups, the incident and the Salvadoran government’s apparent determination to prosecute the defendants as terrorists, has precipitated widespread concern in the U.S. and in the U.S. Congress. An open letter to President Saca in the Salvadoran Press in July was signed by 60 U.S.-based organizations. Representative Chaka Fattah has entered remarks into the Congressional Record. Rep. Jim McGovern, whose extensive knowledge of El Salvador is well recognized, has written a lengthy letter to President Saca expressing his concerns. A Dear Colleague letter signed by forty-one Congressional Representatives expressing similar concerns was sent to President Saca on August 2.
**The space for the common protests of the social movement of El Salvador has been additionally closed with changes to the country’s Public Disorder Law. On August 16, by a one-vote margin, the national assembly modified article 348 of the Salvadoran Penal Code to change disorderly conduct from a misdemeanor to a felony. Within three weeks of passage, the government proceeded to arrest eight executive board members of the Trade Union of Nursing Workers of El Salvador (SIGEESAL). They were charged with disorderly conduct for having participated in a demonstration in July to protest lack of medicines and privatization of health care services. As with the leaders of CRIPDES, those arrested were eventually released from jail but remain charged with felonies, in this case now punishable by up to eight years in prison.
**Human rights groups additionally question whether the deteriorating human rights situation in El Salvador should invoke questions of accountability and US Congressional oversight, concerning US taxpayer supported development funds and El Salvador’s stated commitment to democratic principles. The $461 million awarded to El Salvador through the Millennium Challenge Account was predicated on specific criteria for “Ruling Justly”, four of whose six salient criteria are “rule of law”, “political rights” “civil liberties,” and “voice and accountability.”
A 2003 Human Rights Watch report published for the 59th session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights highlighted the degree to which the United States has muted its criticism of poor human rights behavior of governments which have become newfound allies in the “fight against terrorism.“ El Salvador is the only Latin American country to have troops in Iraq. Since July, the Salvadoran government’s behavior has elicited not one public comment from either our State Department or Embassy. Organizations monitoring human and civil rights in El Salvador since the violently repressive civil war years, see the current actions by the government and police forces as a dangerous sign that the climate for political expression is dramatically slipping. A central component of the 1992 Peace Accords in El Salvador, was the creation of a protected space in El Salvador for political expression, free from the extreme repression that originally precipitated the armed conflict. Organizations and community members are questioning whether the Peace Accords are being violated, and also question the constitutionality of the new reforms in the terrorism and public disorder, and it’s apparent aim to chill dissent from the governments policies.
(For interviews and further information, please contact:
US El Salvador Sister Cities Network:
Emily Carpenter, National Director, US-El Salvador Sister Cities (English and Spanish speaking), (514) 664-1074, firstname.lastname@example.org
Marc Rosenthal, US-El Salvador Sister Cities (English speaking)
(608) 215-3358, (608) 257-8571
CRIPDES - The Association for Rural Communities for the Development of El Salvador:
Lorena Martinez, CRIPDES (Spanish speaking)
(011-503) 2226-3717, email@example.com
Bernardo Belloso, CRIPDES (Spanish speaking)
(011-503) 2226-3717, (011-503) 2235-4005, firstname.lastname@example.org )