• The San Juan Daily Star

Justice Dept. urged to drop charges filed after Vieques protests

Demonstrators rallied in front of Justice Department headquarters Thursday to demand that charges be dropped against three Vieques residents accused of blocking vessels from docking during a ferry service protest in the island municipality last fall. (Photo by Pedro Correa Henry)

Demonstrators call for referendum on maritime transportation system’s administrative future

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

A group of demonstrators rallied Thursday in front of the Department of Justice headquarters demanding that Justice Secretary Domingo Emanuelli drop the charges against Kianí Meléndez, Gustavo Rodríguez and Ismanuel Ramos, who were accused of blocking vessels from docking at the Vieques port during a protest last fall in which residents called for an adequate maritime transportation system.

More than 10 people from the offshore island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra, and from the main island, gathered in San Juan to voice their opposition to the accusations against those charged for allegedly sabotaging vessel dockings. They said the government seeks to criminalize the right to protest as the island municipalities continue to face delays and backlogs with the transportation system under HMS Ferries.

The STAR reported earlier that HMS Ferries and the Maritime Transportation Authority (ATM by its Spanish initials) reached a 23-year public-private agreement that would cost the central government $34 million a year in its first phase.

Vieques resident Miguel Ángel Reyes de Jesús said the department’s decision to press charges against Meléndez and Rodríguez, who were arrested last November, and Ramos, who was arrested in March, is to “criminalize popular demonstrations, prevent communities from organizing because they would fear being imprisoned, and not protest against abuses from those who are in power.”

Reyes de Jesús noted that the three accused residents could face an eight-year jail sentence “for daring to defend the demand for a maritime transportation system that works for our people.”

“The maritime transportation service between Vieques, Culebra and the big island is essential, even when none of the [central] administrations have ever considered it so,” he said. “Our needs, such as health, education, food purchases, literally depend on it.”

“The brothers and sisters of Vieques have protested the poor service and inhumane treatment that we have received for years from this entity [the ATM],” Reyes de Jesús added. “We have not only protested, but we have also presented proposals so that the service responds as it should to our needs rather than to those of economic interests.”

Gloria Elizabeth Fontánez, who lives in Humacao, told the STAR that the government should either hand over the ATM to the people or leave it as a public entity that addresses the people’s concerns.

“Every time a public agency is handed to a private company, the first thing that happens is that services face a price hike,” she said.

HMS Ferries announced recently that it is considering increasing travel fares to the island municipalities every three years.

Reyes de Jesús told the STAR that the government should conduct a referendum in the island municipalities to determine how residents would prefer to manage the maritime transportation system.

“Viequenses have no place to dine or to entertain themselves anymore,” he said. “We feel the government is taking advantage of our lack of good maritime transportation and health services to push us out, and they’re succeeding.”

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