Despite solidarity victory, activists still face up to 4 years in prison
El Salvador’s Attorney General last Friday requested that charges of “acts of terrorism” be dropped against 13 peaceful protesters arrested at a demonstration against water privatization last July in the town of Suchitoto . After more than 6 months of investigation into the events of July 2, 2007, the Salvadoran government was unable to substantiate its original terrorism accusations, which carried a potential sentence of up to 60 years in prison. The charges fell under the jurisdiction of El Salvador ‘s 2006 “Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism,” which was championed by the U.S. Embassy in Sal Salvador. Human rights experts in El Salvador and on the international level uniformly concluded that the Suchitoto protest was lawful and denounced the terrorism charges.
Months of domestic and international pressure for the charges to be dropped, including dozens of letters from U.S. Congressional Representatives and two national “weeks of action” carried out by U.S. solidarity organizations, culminated in the February 8 announcement, which was made before a special anti-terrorism tribunal in San Salvador . In response to grassroots pressure organized by CISPES and allied solidarity organizations, more than 40 members of Congress signed a letter to Salvadoran President Antonio Saca last July questioning the application of the anti-terrorism law in the case of the non-violent Suchitoto protestors. A handful of Congressmen sent personal letters to the Salvadoran government again last week, reiterating their concern for the state of human rights in El Salvador and urging President Saca to respect basic civil liberties, including freedom of political expression.
The Salvadoran government will now seek to convict the 13 “political prisoners” of public disorder and aggravated damages as a result of their participation in last July’s protest. These reduced charges could carry prison sentences of up to 4 years. Family members of the ‘Suchitoto 13’ are calling for all charges be dropped, and have undertaken a 3-day march from Suchitoto to San Salvador to draw continued attention to the case.
The family members and their social movement allies argue that those arrested at Suchitoto have been targeted not because they committed crimes, but in response to their opposition to the governing, right-wing ARENA party’s plan to decentralize the national public water administration. Those who demonstrated in Suchitoto last summer view this plan as a first step toward the eventual privatization of the El Salvador ‘s water system. Amnesty International concurred with this analysis in a statement released July 18, 2007, stating that it feared the arrests had been made “to prevent future protest.”
As the ARENA government continues to pursue charges against the protestors arrested at Suchitoto, a number potentially politically-motivated killings remain unresolved, including last month’s assassination of Wilber Funes, the mayor of Allegria who was a member of the FMLN opposition party. Meanwhile, El Salvador ‘s National Civilian Police (PNC) continues to receive training at the U.S. State Department’s International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), despite international condemnation of its repressive actions against the Suchitoto prisoners, among other recent cases. Stay tuned to the CISPES e-mail list and website in the coming weeks for more ways to help defend democracy and counter U.S.-backed repression in El Salvador.