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ACLU lawsuit targets new Puerto Rico penal code

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against Puerto Rico's police chief and justice secretary, saying the island's new penal code violates the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

The lawsuit comes a week after Gov. Luis Fortuno approved the new code that restricts certain types of protests and establishes a three-year prison sentence for violators.

"The statute is evidently intended to suppress speech, to stop people from protesting against government policies," William Ramirez, local ACLU director, said Tuesday.

The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction to stop Justice Secretary Guillermo Somoza from enforcing the new law as it relates to protests and demonstrations. A portion of the new code states that those who disrupt, interrupt or prevent legislators from performing public duties or cause disorder while in the immediate view and presence of lawmakers will be charged.

The American Civil Liberties Union says the new code uses vague language and does not offer police or potential offenders any guidance about what kind of conduct would be considered criminal.

"It's just plain old unconstitutional no matter how you look at it," Ramirez said. "What would disturb one legislator may not disturb another legislator."

The spokespeople for the police chief and justice secretary did not immediately return messages for comment. Fortuno spokesman Edward Zayas said he would soon comment. Fortuno has previously denied that the code would infringe on the rights of protesters.

Ramirez said he worries the statute, which goes into effect Sept. 1, would likely be applied unevenly and that police would target only certain kinds of protesters.

In 2010, students at the University of Puerto Rico launched a 62-day strike to protest an $800 fee to offset budget cuts. Many were injured in clashes with police who used batons, tear gas and pepper spray. Later that year, there were similar clashes during a protest in front of the seaside Capitol building over a motion that closed legislative sessions to the press and public.

As a result of those clashes, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in late June accusing police of using excessive force and violating civil rights. The new lawsuit was added to the previous one as an amended complaint to speed up the court process, Ramirez said.

The lawsuit also demands that Police Chief Hector Pesquera create an official policy on how to handle public demonstrations and use of force. Pesquera has previously said that the department already has developed a use-of-force policy approved by federal justice officials.