Puerto Rico: new law to ‘intimidate’ unions and students

On July 30 Puerto Rican governor Luis Fortuño signed into law a new Penal Code that he and legislators said would counter a recent rise in crime by imposing much stiffer prison sentences for a wide range of crimes. The new law, which replaces the Penal Code of 2004, also defines the seduction of minors through the internet as a criminal offense and gives the government the power to fire any public employee who commits a crime while carrying out a public function. “We’re not going to let the criminals take over Puerto Rico,” Fortuño said at the signing ceremony.

Fortuño insisted that the new code wouldn’t limit rights of free expression. But Puerto Rican legal experts noted that the revisions dramatically increased penalties for civil disobedience. For example, participating in a protest on the steps of the Capitol building that impedes the work of Puerto Rico’s legislature—like one carried out by students in June 2010—could now be punished with three years in prison, while in the 2004 Penal Code the penalty only applied if legislative work was interrupted through “intimidation, violence or fraud,” language which was removed in the new law.

Attorney CĂ©sar Rosado, a human and civil rights specialist who represents several unions, told the Puerto Rican daily El Nuevo DĂ­a that the new law “tries to intimidate the unions and other pressure groups—like the student movement—which historically have distinguished themselves by presenting resistance to any measure they consider unjust. Establishing a three-year sentence is a big deterrent for protest.” Activists have frequently used nonviolent civil disobedience as a form of protest in Puerto Rico, most famously in the mass arrests that led to the removal of the US Navy proving grounds from the small island of Vieques in 2003. “In democracy it’s important to allow activism,” constitutional law professor Hiram MelĂ©ndez Juarbe told the newspaper, “even if at times it’s inconvenient for the government.” (END, July 30, July 31)

In the US the maximum penalty for interrupting a session of Congress is six months in prison and/or a $500 fine. El Nuevo DĂ­a noted that the punishment for six Puerto Rican independence activists who interrupted Congress by singing patriotic hymns on May 6, 2009, was a fine. (END, July 31)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on Aug. 7 challenging the new law. The challenge was presented as an amendment to a complaint the ACLU filed against the Puerto Rico Police Department on June 27 alleging that the department violated the rights of protesters. (Jurist, Aug. 8)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 12.