Chief Judge Héctor Laffitte's unctuous speech sentencing Puerto Rican Independence Party leaders Fernando Martín and Vance Thomas in the United States District Court in Puerto Rico constitutes Exhibit 1 in the Court of Public Opinion, where he stands accused of judicial passion and political prejudice. In fact, it is the "best evidence" of the abusive behavior of federal authorities acting on behalf of the U.S. Navy.
The effect of Judge Laffitte's original sentence on Thursday, July 6, was to condemn the PIP's vice-president and its candidate for mayor of San Juan to indefinite time in jail. His allegedly self-induced initiative to later amend a sentence that he knew or should have known to be illegal was hardly an act of conscience. Its intent and effect was to condemn both Puerto Rican independentistas to the longest possible time in jail- longer, indeed than the maximum of six months allowed by the statute.
Fernando and Vance, together with more than 130 PIP leaders, including almost one-third of the Party's mayoral candidates, were jailed for a peaceful act of civil disobedience that amounts to a mere misdemeanor - trespassing. They entered restricted areas in Vieques to impede the resumption of military practices by a Navy that bombs and shells with everything from napalm to depleted uranium, endangering the lives and safety of its residents. They did this to protest an undemocratic presidential directive, imposed against the will of the Puerto Rican people.
Others who support their actions have made the point through various means. One of the most dramatic examples is that of a federal judge in Laffitte's own court who recused herself from sitting in judgment of these cases because she agreed with the accused. More recently, an assistant U.S. district attorney in that same court sued the federal government to protest being forced to prosecute civil disobedience.
Fernando, Vance, and others resorted to moral authority in the time-honored practice of violating an unjust law. Not only did they intend to be captured, but expected to be brought to trial so that their conviction might underscore the injustice of these laws. Therefore, PIP disobedients refused to recognize the U.S. Court's jurisdiction over them or their ideas, declined to enter, and refused to defend themselves.
With malice afterthought, they were then slapped with a $1,000 bail federal authorities knew they would not post. And Puerto Rico was regaled with the outrageous spectacle of honest men and women from all walks of their homes in the presence of their spouses and children, often even shackled and chained.
The bureaucratic and administrative maze in Judge Laffitte's Court helped to delay the arraignments of many and others were jailed during several days for refusing to pay bail for a crime for which they had not been formally accused! And when faced with the opportunity to sentence two independentistas whom he knew would not pay, Judge Laffitte could not resist the temptation to transform bail into fine. As Martín said later, "Since we were not defending ourselves and he saw us tied on the ground, it seemed to him like a good idea to kick us a couple of times."
Thus, Judge Laffitte's sentence of "time served," added a fine of $1,000 to Martín, and $700 to Thomas, on account of his lower "rank" in the PIP hierarchy, although the government had introduced no evidence of this. Even then, only the most obstinate or the most irrational would argue that rank in a political party bears any relevance to a trespassing misdemeanor.
Furthermore, Judge Laffitte's pre-sentencing defense of Clinton's directive was unnecessary, except to show how his political judgements blinded his legal analysis in assessing a penalty for trespassing. His personal viewpoint that the PIP had garnered $1 million in publicity with the arrests and ought therefore to seek a change in status through the ballot box was equally irrelevant, except to prove that they were being condemned for their political beliefs. His rhetoric about the defendant's holding "the key" to their freedom simply meant, "Surrender your principles, or I'll keep you in jail indefinitely".
Martín, whom Laffitte was forced to free from jail that very evening, left for the United Nations Decolonization Committee hearing held last Wednesday, July 12, in New York, to denounce the situation before the international community. For the first time, a Decolonization Committee Resolution on Puerto Rico was approved by consensus, reflecting the changing mood of world opinion. Specifically, the resolution condemned the Vieques arrests and political imprisonments. It called for an immediate end to military practices by the U.S. Navy in Vieques and supported a constituent assembly as the means to achieve Puerto Rico's decolonization - the same method the United States used two centuries ago.
The line of justice has been drawn. Now, unless vindictiveness continues to reign supreme in the realm of the Navy's prosecutors, Fernando will continue his campaign for the Senate. He might be jailed again. Others who have by now languished in prison for up to two weeks waiting to be tried for a misdemeanor also face further imprisonment for no other reason than a judge's ideological aversions. The Court of Public Opinion will render a severe judgement on those like him who abuse the non-violent struggle for peace in Vieques. The jury is watching intently.
Manuel Rodríguez Orellana, a senator for the Puerto Rican Independence Party, has been acting as co-counsel for PIP members imprisoned pending trial for trespassing federally restricted areas in Vieques.
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