Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Suchitoto 13 Update: Prosecution Reduces Charges, Continues to Allege Criminality; New Challenges Lie Ahead

Suchitoto 13 Update:
Monday, February 11th

Prosecution Reduces Charges, Continues to Allege Criminality; New Challenges Lie Ahead


The case of the Suchitoto 13 has reached a critical turning point, as a formal and definitive accusations were submitted by the Attorney General's office on February 8th, 2008, more than 7 months after the initial arrest and detention. The document submitted to Special Tribunal Judge Ana Lucila Fuentes de Paz deviates from original accusations, and changes the classification of the crime, presenting charges of "Creating a Public Disorder," as well as "Aggravated Damages." This is a reduction in scope and severity of the charges presented against the Suchitoto 13, but remains a blatant criminalization of the constitutionally guaranteed rights to free expression and association.

Legal Update:

The accusatory document presented by the Attorney General's office details an "official" narration of the events of July 2nd, 2007, as well as testimony and evidence which very closely reflects the original document submitted some 7 months ago. The prosecution maintains that a group of protesters blocked off the road and then responded violently to police. The official narration of the events differs drastically from scores of eyewitness reports, as well as a news reports and video, presented as evidence by the Attorney General's office, (you can see a clip here). The prosecution also presents testimony of several witnesses, both from public officials that manifest that they could not get to the official government event being held in Suchitoto, as well as from members of the Riot Police (UMO) and the police officers that arrested the Suchitoto 13.

The document presented by the Attorney General's office goes on to conclude that the actions of the defendants of July 2nd, 2007 correspond to the crime of "Public Disorder", as expressed in Article 348 of the Salvadoran Penal Code, and not "Acts of Terrorism", as they were originally qualified. Article 348 reads: "Those who, acting in a group and to the end of attacking the peace and public order, block public ways or access routes or invade installations and buildings, will be punished with two to four years in prison."

The document also cites $1,850 worth of damages to state property, including one bullhorn, a gas mask, a riot-police shield and helmet, and damage to 2 state-owned vehicles. Alleging that these objects were damaged "by protesters with rocks, sticks and closed fists," the prosecution also accuses the Suchitoto 13 of the crime of "Aggravated Damages."

Legal Analysis:

A few important legal elements and observations from lawyers and experts close to the case that can help to interpret the latest developments:

The change in the classification of the crime from "Acts of Terrorism" to "Public Disorder" should render the Special Tribunal, and specifically Judge Ana Lucila Fuentes de Paz, incompetent to continue ruling on the case. If the judge were to declare incompetence, either in an official resolution due this week, or at a later preliminary hearing when the defense team gets the chance to present its own evidence and testimony, then the case would be sent back to the conventional court system, in this case in Suchitoto.

The latest document submitted by the Attorney General's office is very similar to the original document, save the changes in the classification of the crime. It seems clear that over the last 7 months, (including the 4 month extension requested by the Attorney General's office), the prosecution has been unable to build a case. There are no new elements of proof submitted, and no stated reasoning even behind why the accusations were changed.

The Suchitoto 13 are charged under the existing Penal Code on July 2nd, 2007. This means that they cannot be charged under the reforms that raised the jail time for "Public Disorder" to 4-8 years. Rather, they face a 2-4 year sentence if convicted.

The Suchitoto 13 Legal Defense team declared that they were "deeply disappointed by the accusations submitted by the Attorney General's office." A spokesperson from the team commented that "There is a grave danger in classifying the legally guaranteed exercise of free expression and protest as a crime. The justice system apparatus clearly made a mistake with the initial arrest and detention of 14 people on July 2nd who had committed no crime. We would have hoped that the Attorney General's office would recognize the error and drop the charges. But on the contrary, the current accusations endanger not just the freedom of the people arrested in Suchitoto, but also the constitutional rights of the Salvadoran people to freely gather and express their opinions."

The Committee of Family Members of Political Prisoners in El Salvador, in a recent press release stated that: "The Attorney General wants it to appear as if the [new accusations] are in accordance with the law, hiding his intentions to continue the violations of human, social and civil rights... Our family members have committed no crimes and they should never have been arrested, much less tried, tortured, jailed and violated in their most fundamental rights. The Attorney General, if he really wants to rectify the situation and show respect for law, should solicit immediate and definitive freedom for our family members."

STAY TUNED at www.elsalvadorsolidarity.org

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