Wednesday, September 29, 2004

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: When Protesting Becomes a Crime

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 27 (IPS) - Social and labour organisations in Argentina demanded that the national government and provincial authorities support a proposal for a draft law that would lead to the dismissal of cases against 4,800 people facing charges based solely on their participation in protests.

The Argentine Workers Central (CTA) trade union confederation and social and human rights groups held demonstrations in Buenos Aires and the provinces of Salta, Neuquen, Jujuy, Catamarca and Tucum'n.

At the end of the demonstration in the capital, the CTA (one of the country's two trade union federations) and other organisations handed over their proposal for a new draft law to Human Rights Secretary Eduardo Luis Duhalde, asking the government to adopt the initiative in order to "de-prosecute" those who have been arrested and charged for taking part in street protests.

"We're not asking for an amnesty, because the people who are facing these charges did not commit any crime," V'ctor Mendibil, on the CTA national board, told IPS. What the organisations are asking for, he said, is an end to the persecution of protesters and activists.

Mendibil said that since 1999, 4,785 activists have been prosecuted for various protest-related offences, like "blocking traffic" or "obstructing economic activity".

Of that total, 1,800 belong to the CTA, which groups trade unions mainly representing public employees and teachers.

The CTA's rival trade union federation is the General Labour Confederation (CGT), which is linked to the most right-wing factions of the governing Justicialista (Peronist) Party.

On Monday, the labour leaders did not blame the government of President N'stor Kirchner - who is from a centre-left sector of the Peronist party -- for what they describe as "judicial persecution". However, they said that if the problem was not swiftly addressed they would hold the national and provincial governments responsible.

The CTA and the Kirchner administration see eye-to-eye on many issues, especially human rights.

Organisations of the unemployed known as "piqueteros" for the roadblocks or "piquetes" that they often stage as a protest strategy, like Barrios de Pie (Neighbourhoods on their Feet) and the Land and Housing Federation (which belongs to the CTA) also held a demonstration in support of the government.

Parliamentary Deputy Luis D'El'a, who heads the Land and Housing Federation, has not escaped legal problems despite his affinity with the government.

D'El'a is facing charges for taking part in the brief occupation of a police station, where officers suspected of complicity in the murder of a community leader who belonged to the Land and Housing Federation worked.

Mendibil said there are labour leaders in the country's northern provinces facing between 30 and 50 separate legal charges each, all of them linked to their participation in street protests demanding respect for social rights that have been guaranteed by the constitution since it was amended to include them in 1994.

The largest number of cases involve former employees of the Spanish-owned Repsol-YPF oil company or its state-run predecessor Yacimientos Petrol'feros Fiscales (YPF).

Many of the workers who were dismissed when the former Argentine state oil monopoly YPF was privatised in the early 1990s are demanding compliance with the agreement through which they were to receive shares in the company.

The charges facing social and labour activists include illicit association to cause damages, blocking traffic, resisting authority and obstructing economic activity.

The latter was added to the penal code to crack down on crimes like fraud, the stripping of a company's assets or business lock-outs, but in the southern province of Santa Cruz the charge was brought this year for the first time against unemployed movement activists who occupied an oil company demanding jobs.

But according to Mendibil, trade unionists are most worried about the charge of "coacci'n agravada" (aggravated coercion), which prosecuting judges are frequently using against those arrested in street protests.

The term "coercion" is applied, for example, to protests in which demonstrators surround a public building and force functionaries to take, or not to take, certain measures, by threatening harm to people or property, Claudio Pandolfi, a lawyer who represents human rights organisations and groups of the unemployed, told IPS.

Pandolfi said that although the Kirchner government has been proactive on human rights, it has "delayed responses to those who are demanding jobs or other social rights, which forces them to take direct action, thus increasing the tension."

"Now the charge of 'coacci'n' is being used to criminalise any protest, as is the charge of 'illegitimate deprivation of liberty', which was created to punish kidnappers but is now being used in cases in which demonstrators keep functionaries from entering or leaving a public office for a few hours," he added.

Pointing out that unemployed activists in Santa Cruz have been charged with "obstructing economic activity", Pandolfi argued that if the offensive against social protests is not curbed, the same charge could be used against workers who go on strike.

"It's absurd. The next thing you know, they'll be accusing protesters of being terrorists," complained the lawyer.

When the economy collapsed in late 2001 after years of recession, the poverty level in this once-rich nation climbed to nearly 60 percent, and now stands at 47.8 percent of the population of 37 million.

Only 35 percent of the workforce is employed in the formal sector of the economy. And although unemployment officially stands at 14.5 percent (and under-employment at 17.6 percent), if the jobless heads of household who draw monthly stipends equivalent to around 50 dollars were counted among the unemployed, the rate would rise to 21 percent.

Households living on less than 115 dollars a month are considered extremely poor, or destitute, a category that now includes about 25 percent of the population.

Millions of people who before the crisis already had only intermittent and informal sector jobs have fallen into chronic unemployment, and depend on the myriad soup kitchens that have cropped up around the country in the past few years.

Because people arrested during demonstrations face the possibility of being held for as long as two years or more until their cases finally make it to trial and they are found guilty or innocent, the trade unions argue that the prosecutions are being used to send a warning to activists and protesters.

The head of the Independent Movement of Pensioners and the Unemployed, Ra'l Castells, who had already been in prison seven times in the past decade, was arrested and transferred to the northeastern province of Chaco in August after occupying a casino in that state in July as part of a protest by hungry people to demand food.

Since the casino managers were unable to provide food, they gave the demonstrators 10,000 pesos (3,300 dollars) to get them to leave the premises. A month later Castells was charged with extortion.

Eleven days ago, he began a hunger strike in prison.

"What they want is to generate fear, teach a lesson to those who continue participating in the protests, make us feel like criminals, so we won't come out and demonstrate the next time around," said Mendibil during a protest.

By Marcela Valente posted 29 September 04


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