El Salvador: “terrorism” charges against Suchitoto 13

Charges of “Acts of Terrorism” will stand against thirteen of fourteen defendants arrested at a July 2nd protest against water privatization in Suchitoto, El Salvador, a judge ruled July 6. Judge Ana Lucila Fuentes de Paz of the Special Tribunal of San Salvador denied bail for the accused, sending them to an estimated 90 days in jail while prosecutors gather evidence for trial.

Fuentes de Paz threw out “Public Disorder” and “Illicit Association” charges against all the defendants, arguing that prosecutors had failed to generate proof in those cases. A fourteenth defendant, Facundo García, had all charges dropped. Judge Fuentes said García had only sought to aid other arrestees, and that act did not constitute a crime. García remains hospitalized as a result of blows suffered at the hands of National Civil Police during his arrest.

Charges remained, however, for Lorena Martinez and Rosa Maria Centeno, President and Vice-president of the well-known CRIPDES-CORDES community development organization. The two were led out of the Special Tribunal with Martinez’ right wrist handcuffed to Centeno’s left. They chanted, “We are not terrorists, we are citizens!” in unison as they were muscled into waiting police vehicles.

“When we look at the video, we see that there are no acts of terrorism. We believe that these detentions are arbitrary,” defense attorney Raúl Antonio López told the left-leaning Diario CoLatino newspaper. The paper reported that defense attorney Karla Albanés was stunned by the Judge’s decision in the case. Albanés noted the severe lack of evidence presented by prosecutors against defendants. Both members of the defense team vowed to appeal the judge’s decision.

Before the hearing on Saturday morning, thousands of supporters of the arrestees marched on the building where charges were aired. The march stretched the entire half-mile from El Salvador del Mundo park to the upscale Galerias shopping mall along the Paseo Escalón Boulevard, before terminating at the plaza in front of the Special Tribunal. Participants carried signs that said, “Freedom for the 14 political prisoners.” Organized by the opposition FMLN political party, marchers argued that the “Acts of Terrorism” charges were aimed at silencing public dissent toward President Antonio Saca’s controversial national “decentralization” policy.

Many marchers expressed concern that the 14 detainees were El Salvador’s first political prisoners since Peace Accords were signed in 1992. Most agreed that the malicious application of the Anti-terrorism Law against protesters could signal a dangerous retrogression to the past, when the State openly targeted opposition political expression. They said that the July 2 protest had been peaceful until police shot tear gas and rubber bullets as they violently dislodged protesters who had blocked streets.

A July 4 statement signed by more than 60 Salvadoran social organizations demanded an immediate release of all detainees. Barring that, they exhorted respect for the physical integrity of the accused by police and other state authorities. The demands were made in the wake of claims that police had threatened to throw some arrestees out of a transport helicopter as it hung over Lake Suchitoto on July 2. Such threats resonate deeply here, sparking memories of human rights atrocities of the 1980’s. A 1993 UN report found that the Salvadoran Army and National Guard were responsible for 95% of human rights violations committed during the 1980-1992 period of civil conflict.

Meanwhile, US solidarity organizations working with a wide range of Salvadoran groups demanded guarantees for the physical integrity of the arrestees, and for their immediate release. The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) added a call for the repeal of the Anti-terrorism Law.

“If the US Government publicly supported the approval of the Anti-terrorism Law, as they did, then they should denounce it when it is being applied for political purposes,” said Krista Hanson, Program Director for the New York-based CISPES.

Representatives from the US-El Salvador Sister Cities organization announced that efforts to launch a “Dear Colleague” letter in the US Congress had netted two co-sponsors. They said final wording of the letter was finished and that the group would start searching for Congressional co-signers in the coming weeks.

The US groups have launched a joint fax-in campaign to call for the freedom of the detainees and to draw attention to what they argue is a politically-motivated application of the Anti-terrorism Law. Representatives of the groups (including the author of this report) met with US Ambassador to El Salvador, Charles Glazer on July 11. At the meeting, they asked the Ambassador for a public pronouncement about the US Embassy’s position regarding the July 2 protest and its aftermath.

Jason Wallach for Upside Down World, July 12

See our last posts on El Salvador and Central America.

  1. Salvadoran “terrorism” law questioned
    From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 5:

    On July 31 Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), asked the Salvadoran government to drop terrorism charges against 14 people arrested in connection with a July 2 anti-privatization protest in the northern city of Suchitoto. “Blocking highways and throwing rocks could perfectly well be crimes, but they aren’t acts of terrorism,” he said.

    Campesinos and other activists had blocked roads on July 2 to disrupt a ceremony rightwing president Elias Antonio Saca planned to hold in Suchitoto to launch a “decentralization” campaign which the protesters said would result in the privatization of water supplies. Police battled the protesters for hours; 25 people were injured by rubber bullets and 18 by pepper spray. The police arrested 14 people, including a reporter and four members of a social organization who were not at the demonstration. All 14 were charged under the Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism, which was passed in November 2006.

    The terrorism charges have brought criticism from a number of international groups and officials, including the Center for Justice and International LAW (CEJIL), based in Latin America and the Caribbean; the London-based Amnesty International (AI); the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders; and US Congress member Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), who said the application of an antiterrorism law against protesters showed the weakness of democracy in El Salvador. As of July 26, all 14 of the detainees had been released conditionally; they must report to a judge every 15 days and are barred from leaving the country. (Diario Colatino, San Salvador, July 29, 30, 31)