Puerto Rico: bar association head jailed in “rights crisis”

Chief US federal district judge José Fusté sent Puerto Rican Bar Association (CAPR) president Osvaldo Toledo Martínez to prison on Feb. 10 for refusing to pay a $10,000 fine for contempt of court. This was the latest incident arising from a federal class action suit that challenges the bar’s use of compulsory dues to buy life insurance policies for all its members. CAPR supporters say the association has discontinued the practice and the suit is politically motivated.

Last year the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston upheld an injunction that barred the use of dues for the insurance program, but the court overturned a $4 million damages judgment and said lawyers can opt out of the class action suit. A lower court could then reduce the damages, the appeals court ruled. In defiance of a gag order barring discussion of the case, Toledo held a press conference on Feb. 8 to tell lawyers about their option to get out of the suit; he warned that the CAPR headquarters might have to be sold to pay the judgment. Judge Fusté then found Toledo in contempt and imposed the fine. Toledo surrendered on Feb. 10 at the federal courthouse in Hato Rey rather than pay. “I am here to turn myself in because I don’t want officials to break the doors to my house at 3 am,” he said, “or shoot pepper spray at my family, or bring federal patrol cars. I want my family to sleep peacefully.”

Toledo was released on Feb. 14 after a motion was filed saying that he would pay the fine, but under protest and at the urging of his wife. Once he was released, Toledo treated by a urologist for a possible urinary infection and then taken to a hospital emergency room due to high blood pressure. (Caribbean Business, Puerto Rico, Feb. 10; ABA Journal, Feb. 14, Feb. 15)

Coming amidst charges of repression by the administration of conservative governor Luis Fortuño against student protesters at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Judge Fusté’s jailing of Toledo triggered strong support for the bar association president. Some 250 CAPR members and others held a vigil in front of the federal prison in Hato Rey the night of Feb. 11. Environmental activist Alberto de Jesús Mercado (“Tito Kayak”) climbed an electric power pole and unfurled a banner reading: “Osvaldo, all of Puerto Rico is with you.” The Ibero-Americana Union of Bar Associations denounced Fusté’s actions as an abuse of power and a throwback to “the ancestral debtors’ prison.” (NotiCel, Puerto Rico, Feb. 11)

The case came up in the US House of Representatives on Feb. 16, when Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill) called the situation in Puerto Rico a “human rights and civil rights crisis” and compared it to Egypt during the repression of protests there in late January and early February.

Standing next to photograph of Judge Fusté, Gutierrez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, described the island as “[a] part of the world where a student strike led the university to ban student protests on campus and where students protesting the crackdown on free speech were violently attacked by heavily armed police….a part of the world where the bar association has been dismantled by the legislature because it takes stands in opposition to the government, and its leader has been jailed for fighting a politically motivated lawsuit.” Charging that Fusté has “close political ties to the ruling party and a personal history of opposing the Puerto Rico bar association,” Gutierrez entered into the Congressional Record Toledo’s instructions on how CAPR members could opt out of the suit. (El Nuevo Día, Guaynabo, Feb. 16)

Meanwhile, student protesters were planning to continue their fight against an $800 tuition surcharge at the UPR. Having won their demand for the police to be withdrawn from UPR campuses, members of the Student Representative Committee (CRE) said they would ask a Feb. 22 General Assembly of students at the Río Piedras campus in San Juan to endorse their call for a strike like the successful strike against budget cuts in the spring of 2010.

Some students who support the protesters’ demands oppose the use of the strike on strategic grounds. Even if the assembly backs the plan, the vote may not become official. Last August Gov. Fortuño signed a law requiring all student assembly decisions to be ratified by an electronic vote open to all the students. Some students say that if the assembly backs a strike plan, the administration could refuse to put it up for the electronic vote, claiming that university strikes are illegal. (END, Feb. 20; Primera Hora, Guaynabo, Feb. 20)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 20.

See our last post on Puerto Rico.