Puerto Rican Activist Sentenced
Party Chief Given 6-Hour Jail Term for Trespassing on Vieques
By John Marino
The sentence was shorter than the length of the trial, which lasted parts of two days and provided Berrios and others a platform for continued protests over the Navy's use of Vieques as a bombing range. More than 100 people have been arrested for trespassing on the range since federal agents removed more than 200 demonstrators from the site on May 4.
Berrios and a codefendant--environmentalist Jorge Fernandez Porto, who was sentenced to four hours in jail--put up no defense against the trespassing charges.
With hundreds of supporters outside the courthouse chanting "Ruben, tranquilo, el pueblo esta contigo," or "Relax, Ruben, the people are with you," Berrios told the court that "the root of the problem with Vieques--as with the deeper problem of our political relationship with the United States--lies in the refusal of the American government to respect the will of our people."
U.S. District Judge Jorge Perez Gimenez implied that the light sentence was out of deference to the defendants' right to peaceful protest. "Odd as it may seem to you, we both are on the side of democracy on this one," Perez Gimenez told Berrios. "You are complying with your conscience. I am also complying with mine."
Berrios and scores of other protesters occupied the range in the wake of a botched April 19, 1999, bombing exercise in which Vieques resident David Sanes Rodriguez, a civilian security guard who worked for the Navy, was killed. Berrios spent more than a year at a protest camp there. The demonstrators were removed during the May 4 raid by federal authorities.
On May 10, Berrios and Fernandez Porto reentered the range and were charged with trespassing. On May 13, 51 people were arrested for trespassing on the Navy bombing range. Another 31 people were arrested on June 1, and 14 more on June 10. Most of those detained went to the Navy firing range to protest against the resumption of Navy exercises on the offshore island. Six local journalists took part.
Among those arrested was Lolita Lebron, 80, a Nationalist Party member who had served 20 years in federal prison for her participation in the 1954 armed attack on the U.S. Congress, which resulted in injuries to four lawmakers.
Gov. Pedro Rossello, who on Jan. 31 entered into an agreement with the Clinton administration on the future use of Vieques, said the sentence was "generous and prudent."
Under the agreement, the Navy will train using dummy bombs for three years. The deal includes economic incentives for Vieques and the transfer of the western end of the island from Navy to commonwealth hands.
The deal also calls for a referendum among Vieques residents, who will choose whether they want the Navy to leave in three years or stay indefinitely using "live fire" munitions in exchange for an extra $50 million in economic aid.
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