Student Protesters in Puerto Rico Face Trial as Government Criminalizes Dissent


“Student protesters in Puerto Rico face trial as the government criminalizes dissent,” Alice Speri reports for The Intercept:

With the second round of trials underway in Washington, D.C., for protesters charged in connection with the J20 demonstrations against Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, another legal battle over the right to dissent is unfolding hundreds of miles away in Puerto Rico, where seven students are facing charges in connection to a protest over tuition hikes at the island’s public university.

In April 2017, leaders of the University of Puerto Rico’s student body demanded a meeting with the school’s governing board to discuss alternatives to a program of sharp disinvestment from the university, one in a slew of public service cuts in Puerto Rico in recent years. When their requests were ignored, a few dozen protesters stormed the building where the university board was meeting. There were no serious injuries or damage, and nobody was arrested.

In the following days, however, several students who had assumed leadership roles in the protest movement received citations ordering them to appear in court. When they did, they were handcuffed and paraded before TV cameras in the middle of the night, then booked and, finally, released on bail.

While students at UPR continue to fight the new measures — the university board ultimately approved the tuition hikes last month, a year after the students stormed the meeting — they are also rallying around students arrested after the 2017 protest. As with the unfolding prosecutions in Washington, officials in Puerto Rico are throwing the book at protesters with unprecedented zeal.

Eleven students were originally charged following the protest, facing up to 18 years in prison before the most severe charges were dropped. Four students were eventually cleared altogether, but seven are still facing charges ranging from intimidation of public authority to violating the right of assembly, restriction of liberty, and rioting.

With preliminary hearings currently underway, the UPR students and their lawyers say that the looming trials are a sign of Puerto Rico’s growing criminalization of dissent — a message that was reinforced by the violent police response to May Day rallies held both last year and this year. “I think it’s a prelude,” Gabriel Díaz Rivera, one of the students facing prosecution, told The Intercept. “It doesn’t matter for them if, at the end of the road, all the charges are dropped. The important thing for them is to create the chilling effect.”

Lawyers for the UPR students are challenging the criteria used to target these particular individuals out of the dozens who stormed the board meeting: Prosecutors used video of the incident and turned to an unidentified source to single out leaders of the student movement, according to Oscar Martinez Borras, one the students’ attorneys. “What was really unusual is the way they got to these students,” he told The Intercept. “There were about 60, 70 protesters in that building, and they just chose these particular students.” Prosecutors did not respond to a request for comment. [. . .]

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