From the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), Feb. 21:
On Tuesday, February 19, 13 political activists arrested last July in the town of Suchitoto were set free, and all charges against them were dismissed. This victory for the “Suchitoto 13” comes on the heels of the initial charges of “acts of terrorism” being dropped on February 8, following a drawn out, 7-month investigation. The terrorism charges, enabled by El Salvador’s 2006 Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism, were universally denounced by human rights organizations in El Salvador and around the world, and carried a potential sentence of up to 60 years in prison.
After the government’s February 8 admission that it did not have evidence to substantiate the original terrorism accusations, the charges were reduced to “public disorder” and “aggravated damages,” crimes carrying sentences of up to 4 years. Accordingly, the case was moved from the jurisdiction of a special anti-terrorism tribunal in San Salvador – also established by the 2006 law – to the regular court system in Suchitoto.
On Tuesday, the judge in Suchitoto dismissed the new, lesser charges, granting the defendants “definitive liberty” after the prosecution failed to appear at a preliminary hearing to present evidence. The government’s attorneys later said their car broke down en route to the court. It is unclear whether the government will seek to appeal the decision.
The “Suchitoto 13” were violently arrested at a July 2, 2007, demonstration against Salvadoran president Antonion Saca’s plan to “decentralize” Suchitoto’s public water system, a move that was widely viewed as a first step toward the eventual privatization of that system. Following their arrests, several of the defendants were psychologically tortured by members of El Salvador’s National Civilian Police (PNC), a police force that the US State Department has praised as one of the best in Latin America, and which it trains at the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in San Salvador.
Starting on Monday, February 11, various social organizations participated in a three-day march from Suchitoto to San Salvador to ensure that public attention remained focused on the case, even after the charges had been reduced. The march had two clear messages: opposition to El Salvador’s anti-terrorism law and the call for all charges to be dropped in the Suchitoto case. The latter demand was met with Tuesday’s court ruling. In support of the march, the mayor of Soyapango, Carlos Ruiz of the FMLN party, declared, “this is a protest to say ‘No more state terrorism!’ It is a just, rebellious response to oppression.”
In a further development, the Supreme Court of Justice petitioned the Legislative Assembly to rule on the constitutionality of the Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism, approved by a right-wing block in September 2006.