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POLICE USE ANTI-TERROR LAW TO SUPPRESS PROTEST

Amnesty International is "deeply concerned" that the police improperly used new anti-terrorist legislation to punish demonstrators protesting against government plans to privatise water distribution in El Salvador.

Journalist Maria Haydee Chicas and 13 others were arrested on 2 July for committing "acts of terrorism" during a demonstration in the colonial city of Suchitoto, north of San Salvador, say Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF), Amnesty and local news reports.

Around 100 members of community groups and NGOs blocked off several roads leading to the town prior to a visit by President Elías Antonio Saca, who was to unveil his new "National Decentralisation Policy", which activists say would privatise water distribution.

Initially peaceful, the demonstration turned violent and around 25 people were injured when the police intervened, firing tear gas and rubber bullets, reports RSF. Chicas, who works in the communications office of the Association of Rural Communities for the Development of El Salvador (Asociación de Comunidades Rurales para el Desarrollo de El Salvador, CRIPDES), and four colleagues were arrested on their way to cover the protest. Fourteen people were arrested in total, 13 of whom were sentenced on 7 July to three months of "provisional detention" - apparently to allow the public prosecutor time to gather evidence to support the terrorism, public disorder and illegal association charges.

Although Chicas, along with three others, has been conditionally released, she cannot leave the country and must report to court every two weeks, says RSF. Her trial is scheduled for October 2007, where she faces an extraordinary sentence of up to 40 years in jail.

El Salvador's Special Law against Acts of Terrorism, which came into effect last September, is modelled on the U.S.'s Patriot Act. Amnesty fears that the community leaders were arrested under the new laws to prevent future protests.

Visit these links:
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=22867
- Amnesty: http://tinyurl.com/279lla
- Common Dreams: http://tinyurl.com/yuo5gq
- "El Salvador: What Bloggers are Saying about Protesters and Terrorism" on Global Voices: http://tinyurl.com/2pmjtp
(Photo: Police at the scene of road blockades in Suchitoto. Photo courtesy of http://www.laprensagrafica.com)

(31 July 2007)

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