Will new anti-protest laws in Puerto Rico benefit the Energy Empire?

compiled by panagioti, Earth First! Journal collective

Last week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Puerto Rico’s police chief and justice secretary, saying the island’s new penal code violates the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

The lawsuit came a week after Governor Luis Fortuno approved the new code that restricts certain types of protests and establishes a three-year prison sentence for violators.

Demonstrators march on May Day 2011 in a protest against the proposed construction of a gas pipeline in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. Photograph: Ricardo Alcaraz/AP

“The statute is evidently intended to suppress speech, to stop people from protesting against government policies,” William Ramirez, local ACLU director, said Tuesday.

These policies include the push for a new gas pipline, the so-called Via Verde (Green Way), through environmentally sensitive areas, which has seen mass opposition over the past year. Opponents of the government-owned project, proposed by Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) call the project “el tubo de la muerte” (the tube of death).

A provision in the new code restricts protests that block public buildings and interfere with government, presumably including agencies like the US Army Corps of Engineers, who was exposed for failing to release a Spanish version of a draft environmental assessment in late 2011.

Industrial wind power on the island is also under fire from farmers, local communities and environmental groups, who have created an Agriculture Resistance Front (FRA).

The civil society coalition advocates for the protection of Puerto Rican farmland from threats like the Santa Isabel windmill project, which entails 44 to 65 windmills being built by the U.S.- based Pattern Energy Corporation in the heart of Puerto Rico’s fertile southern plains.

The Governor signed the new penal code on July 30th, under the guise of imposing mandatory sentencing and increasing the penalties for all violent crimes. 

Ramirez said he worries the statute, which could go into effect Sept. 1, would likely be applied unevenly and that police would target only certain kinds of protesters.

The ACLU lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction to stop Justice Secretary Guillermo Somoza from enforcing the new law as it relates to protests and demonstrations. A portion of the new code states that those who disrupt, interrupt or prevent legislators from performing public duties or cause disorder while in the immediate view and presence of lawmakers will be charged.

The American Civil Liberties Union says the new code uses vague language and does not offer police or potential offenders any guidance about what kind of conduct would be considered criminal.

Rene, or “Residente,” of band Calle 13 was featured in the news today speaking out against the referendum which seeks to fortify the police state.

Along with these anti-protest laws, there is a controversial ballot referendum pending that would end a provision of Puerto Rican law that grants the right to post bail to anyone charged with a crime. This item in particular has caught the attention of notorious musicians from the island such as Calle 13, whose vocalist “Residente” has spoken out against the criminalization and repression (the group, who has received over 20 Latin Grammys,  is also known for its bold stances on immigrant solidarity, indigenous rights and marine ecology). The vote will occur on August 19th.

These repressive policies were driven, in part, by a response to students at the University of Puerto Rico who launched a 62-day strike in 2010 to protest new fees and budget cuts. Many were injured in clashes with police who used batons, tear gas and pepper spray. Later that year, there were similar clashes during a protest in front of the seaside Capitol building over a motion that closed legislative sessions to the press and public.

As a result of those clashes, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in late June accusing police of using excessive force and violating civil rights. The new lawsuit was added to the previous one as an amended complaint to speed up the court process, Ramirez said.

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