The prisoners held in United States federal jails had been fighting for independence, according to a petitioner representing the American Association of Jurists and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Yet they had been removed from their native land, kept away from their families and given harsh sentences, in violation of international humanitarian law and United States constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.
A petitioner from the Interfaith Prisoners of Conscience Project said that 17 years in prison had not dampened the commitment of the 15 Puerto Rican political prisoners to their people. The Special Committee should urge the United States to release them.
A petitioner from the Puerto Rico Collective said the Special Committee had a moral and political responsibility towards the Puerto Rican people. It was time to bring a resolution before the General Assembly denouncing the colonial status of the island and demanding that the United States initiate a decolonization process there that complied with the 1960 Decolonization Declaration.
The representative of Cuba said the Special Committee should not forget the plight of Puerto Rican political prisoners, whose only crime was attempting to defend the rights of their people. The Committee must remain vigilant with respect to the situation in Puerto Rico. There could be no referendum on its future while the United States continued its military presence on the island.
Statements were also made by representatives from the following organizations: the Central Federation of Workers; "the Comite Unitario en Contra de la Represion"; ProLibertad; "Latinos & Latinas de Ambiente"; Statehood 2000; the League of United Latin American Citizens of Puerto Rico;
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Puerto Ricans at the United Nations; Puerto Ricans for Statehood; the Organization of Professionals Pro-Equal Rights; the Puerto Rican Initiative to Develop Empowerment; the Puerto Rican Foundation for Democratic Action; the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Prisoners of War and Political Prisoners; the United Church of Christ Board for Homeland Ministries; and "Ofensiva '92."
The Special Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. tomorrow, 19 June, to conclude its hearing of petitioners on the question of Puerto Rico and to consider a report on a seminar held last month for the Caribbean region.
Special Committee Work Programme
The Special Committee on decolonization met this afternoon to continue its hearing of petitioners on the question of Puerto Rico. (For background see Press Release GA/COL/2970 of 19 June.)
JUAN A. ROBLES ORTEGA, of the Central Federation of Workers, said the 15 political prisoners incarcerated in United States jails were the best proof of the true intentions of the colonial Power. The prisoners had all been arrested between 1980 and 1986, and their sentences were harsher than those imposed on serial murderers, rapists and people convicted of dreadful crimes of corruption. No one could deny the colonial relationship suffered by Puerto Ricans. The political prisoners did not create the colonial relationship but suffered because of it. None of the prisoners had the right to introduce legislation to the United States Congress, which was currently discussing a bill on their future.
The prisoners were not criminals, but writers, artists and teachers -- all activists fighting for their independence, he said. They were being maltreated by their jailers, in violation of international humanitarian law and United States law. One prisoner had spent 14 of his 15 years in prison in solitary confinement. Recently, prison conditions had improved somewhat, thanks to the efforts and denunciations of concerned people.
The United States could improve its image and take firm steps towards decolonization by granting a general amnesty to all political prisoners, he said. United States President Bill Clinton, who advocated freedom for people everywhere around the world, should look to his own home and address the problems faced by Puerto Ricans, who had suffered through five centuries of colonial rule.
PABLO MARCANO GARCIA, of the Comite Unitario en Contra de la Represion, said the United States constantly sought to dominate the economic and political life of the Puerto Rican people and to crush their desire for freedom. Their compatriots were languishing in United States prisons, subjected to inhuman conditions. He shared the view of such international bodies as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch regarding the maltreatment of political prisoners in the United States, whose minds and bodies were being crushed. They were being kept in total isolation in a prison in Kentucky.
The campaign for the release of those prisoners was gathering momentum, with thousands of petitions sent to the White House and the United States Congress, he said. The Special Committee should urge the United States to
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comply with the aspirations of the people for self-determination and to release all Puerto Rican political prisoners.
Rev. S. MICHAEL YASUTAKE, of the Interfaith Prisoners of Conscience Project, said that organization was in contact with some 100 political prisoners in the United States, among whom were 15 Puerto Ricans. Members of his organization visited the Puerto Rican prisoners regularly and had the highest regard for their commitment to justice and the self-determination of all people. Those individuals had been imprisoned for their beliefs and associations in support of the independence of Puerto Rico, but the United States Government had condemned them to practically a life sentence as criminals.
As long as they were kept in prison, a fair and free expression of conscience of the Puerto Rican people would not be possible, he said. They should be released before any process leading to full self-government for Puerto Rico could begin. The Special Committee must urge the United States Government to release them. The prisoners had stated that 17 years of prison had not dampened their commitment to their people, who they hoped to rejoin.
RAQUEL RIVERA, speaking on behalf of the Puerto Rico Collective, said the colonial and imperialistic policies imposed on Puerto Rico for the past 99 years had had a negative effect on its social, political, economic and environmental life. The Special Committee had a moral and political responsibility towards the Puerto Rican people. It was time to bring a resolution to the General Assembly denouncing the colonial status of Puerto Rico and demanding that the United States initiate a decolonization process there that complied with the 1960 Decolonization Declaration.
She said a real decolonization process required that the United States fulfil a number of conditions. It must recognize that as a result of colonization, the environment had been degraded and destroyed, leading to disastrous effects on human life and health precluding economic development on the island. It must recognize that military uses of the island had caused serious environmental pollution, and assume responsibility for restoration and clean-up activities for polluted ecosystems. It must compensate Puerto Ricans for environmental degradation and require multinational corporations to provide compensation and clean up environmental damage. It must assume responsibility for the health problems of Puerto Ricans living in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Philadelphia and other United States cities, since migration was directly related to the colonial economic model.
She also called for the unconditional release of all political prisoners, demilitarization of the island and participation by all Puerto Rican nationals in any self-determination process, regardless of their place of residence.
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FRANK J. GUZMAN of the "Latinos & Latinas de Ambiente", said his organization implored the Special Committee to keep Puerto Rico on the "shameful list of Non Self-Governing Territories". He urged the United Nations to demand the immediate release of all political prisoners and prisoners of war who had been illegally and unjustifiably incarcerated by the United States for nearly two decades. They must be released before continuation of the discussions on Puerto Rico's political future. The question of Puerto Rico's political status shared much in common with the gay and lesbian liberation movement. Homophobia, gay bashing, AIDS phobia, unjustified stereotypes and religious and political persecution were nothing new to gays and lesbians throughout the United States, Puerto Rico and the rest of the world. Humanitarian freedom and its protections had not always been respected by the United States.
As a Puerto Rican gay man living in the South Bronx in New York, he knew about discrimination, abuse, violence and police brutality, he said. Whatever its current political designation, Puerto Rico was nothing but a colony. The United States should be ashamed to be the only "free democratic" nation which still possessed and owned a colony. Puerto Rico must remain a priority of the Special Committee. If the United Nations recognized abuses in Bosnia and Herzegovina, China and Iran, then it must also recognize the humanitarian abuse in the United States, continued imprisonment of Puerto Rican prisoners of war and its possession of the island.
JOSE J. RIVERA, of Statehood 2000, said Puerto Ricans did not have the right to take part in elections for the United States President or Vice President. The current bill before the United States Congress on the future political status of Puerto Rico did not allow for full independence. Neither did it alter the sovereign power of the United States over the island. It only allowed Puerto Rico to develop its own style of government.
In the most recent plebiscite, in November 1993, 48 per cent of the voters had supported the continuation of commonwealth status, while 46 per cent had supported statehood and 4 per cent voted for independence, he said. In 1967, 60 per cent had voted in favour of commonwealth status, 39 per cent for statehood and 4 per cent for independence. It was clear that support for commonwealth status had fallen since then. In 1993, with 74 per cent of registered voters taking part in the plebiscite, more than 50 per cent did not support continuation of the current colonial status.
ELSIE VALDES DE LIZARDI, of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Puerto Rico, said she had represented various organizations before the Special Committee over the years in support of the rights of the Puerto Rican people. The island was entering the next century as a colony, in a situation similar to that in which it found itself when it was given to the United States as war booty.
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She said the current bill in the United States Congress -- the Young Bill -- would allow an opportunity for Puerto Ricans to determine their future. The bill provided for the holding of a plebiscite next year, whose outcome would be endorsed by the United States President and Congress. A referendum would then be held.
Her organization supported statehood and equality within the United States, she said. The Special Committee should recommend that a decision be taken on the future of the Territory. It should endorse the provisions of the current bill.
JUAN CARLOS LIZARDI, of Puerto Ricans at the United Nations, said the Territory's colonial status limited the federal benefits its people would be entitled to as American citizens. There was no doubt that the Young Bill would provide Puerto Ricans with the opportunity to determine their future. They needed the Special Committee's support to help them achieve their rights. His organization supported statehood, which would entitle Puerto Ricans to American citizenship. His people demanded equality. "Enough with second- class citizenship", he said. The time had come to decolonize Puerto Rico and make it a state.
MIRIAM SANTIAGO DE CRESPI, of Puerto Ricans for Statehood, said the Special Committee should urge the United States Congress to ensure that the Puerto Rican people could decide on their future as soon as possible, and so enable them to enter the new millennium as a state. The United Nations must observe the process of self-determination to ensure that Puerto Ricans enjoyed the same rights as those in other states.
RAMON LUIS CRESPI, of the Organization of Professionals Pro-Equal Rights, also referred to the Young Bill before the United States Congress. He said Puerto Rico was at a crossroads. Puerto Ricans believed in democracy and respected the will of the people. They strongly rejected all kinds of violence in resolving their future status. Democracy should respect the rights of all. His people wished to exercise their right to determine their own future.
DIEGO M. SANTIAGO, of the Puerto Rican Initiative to Develop Empowerment, said that for over 100 years, the people of Puerto Rico had struggled to gain their independence and the right to self-determination. The United Nations had been founded to promote peace and harmony and must therefore pressure the United States to abide by those ideals. It was hypocritical for the United States to advocate freedom and democracy and not practice it in Puerto Rico. It was crucial that the United Nations ensure that the United States grant the freedoms it preached to all Puerto Ricans. The gay and lesbian movement demanded the release of all political prisoners and an open and free debate on the issue, without fear of reprisals.
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EMILIO A. SOLER MARI, of the Puerto Rican Foundation for Democratic Action, said the bill on the political status of Puerto Rico currently before the United States Congress was weighted heavily in favour of the integration option. It should be rewritten to include language defining a free association compact with the United States. An absolute or overwhelming majority would be required for annexation. Eligibility to vote in a plebiscite should be based on the criteria used for the Marshall Islands and Palau. All those born in Puerto Rico and their offspring, regardless of their current residence, should be eligible to vote. The release of all political prisoners would go a long way towards solving the current problems over Puerto Rico's future status.
GILMA CAMARGO, speaking on behalf of the American Association of Jurists and the Center for Constitutional Rights, said her organization advocated the application of international law as the basis for the achievement of sovereignty for the people of Puerto Rico. It provided legal representation to Puerto Rican citizens who reaffirmed their nationality by renouncing the citizenship imposed on them by the United States, as well as those who struggled for independence. It also worked to combat repression by the United States against the Puerto Rican independence movement.
In the case of Puerto Rico, the United States had failed to comply with the principles of international law regarding the self-determination of non- self-governing people, she said. That was clear by its continuous imprisonment of Puerto Rican freedom fighters. The United States did not even recognize them as political prisoners or prisoners of war, as required by international law. The had been removed from their native land and kept away from their families and supporters, serving sentences which violated United States constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.
Contrary to the wishes of the people, the United States planned to increase its military presence on the island and to pass legislation to impose the English language, she said. New funds were being provided for the infiltration and surveillance of organizations and activists, whose position was contrary to the "so-called interest of the United States".
The case of Puerto Rico must be brought before the International Court of Justice for a consultative opinion on the legality of the United States' actions, she said. A referendum dominated by the colonizing Power was a charade intended to secure that colonial status. Puerto Ricans who rejected their United States citizenship to affirm their own nationality should find support for that inalienable right within the United Nations.
JOSEFINA RODRIGUEZ, of the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Prisoners of War and Political Prisoners, said she was the a mother of one of those 15 political prisoners. The Special Committee should use its moral
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authority on their behalf. She appealed to the United States President to use his constitutional power to free the prisoners, who were being held because of their anti-colonial activities. She then read out a message the prisoners had recently issued, in which they stated that a 1992 request for their release sent to the United States President had not been answered. They stated that they were fighting for the independence of their country.
Looking at the present historical situation, they said they were prepared to contribute to a political process to heal the wounds of the past, she said. That process should start with their release. They said the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in incarcerating them could be usefully spent in building schools and health centres in their neighbourhoods in Puerto Rico. Their activities had been generally of a symbolic nature, aimed at focusing attention on Puerto Rico's colonial status and not at bringing violence to innocent civilians.
Rev. C. NOZOMI IKUTA, of the United Church of Christ Board for Homeland Ministries, said the arrest of Alejandrina Torres had catalysed the issue of political prisoners as a national pastoral concern. It was difficult to describe adequately the impact of her meeting with Ms. Torres and three others. All the prisoners had suffered from a combination of brutalization, sensory deprivation, extended periods of solitary confinement, the monitoring and disruption of their mail, denial of visits by their loved ones and the denial of bedside and funeral visits.
She narrated the plight of another prisoner, Lopez Rivera, who she said was arrested in 1981, convicted of seditious conspiracy and related charges and sent to the United States penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1985, Mr. Lopez was further convicted in a government initiated escape conspiracy and sent to another penitentiary in Marion. Yet he remained unbroken, despite 10 years of solitary confinement.
In prison, those prisoners had made vital contributions to the lives of their fellow inmates and their voices had continued to be heard, she said. In a jointly signed public statement, they had expressed their desire to take part in a truly democratic process to determine Puerto Rico's status. Clearly, they would make a vital contribution to the resolution of Puerto Rico's status, were they free to travel and otherwise articulate their views.
CELSO HERNANDEZ MOJICA, of Ofensiva '92, said his organization had a mission to free the political prisoners. The United States Government had used American citizenship to force Puerto Ricans to fight in foreign wars, in which many had died. Spain had had no right to give the island to the United States as war booty. Puerto Ricans had been subjected to brutal experiments of all kinds, leading to the flight of thousands to the United States. Those experiments violated the United Nations Convention against Torture.
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The right to self-determination was not only indispensable but fundamental, he said. Colonialism -- described by the United Nations as a crime against humanity -- should be eradicated. Puerto Ricans would fight against it. Since the 1930s, the United States had carried out a policy aimed at wiping out Puerto Rican nationalists. Diverse techniques such as massacres, assassination and torture had been used. He urged the Special Committee to demand the immediate release of the political prisoners.
BRUNO RODRIGUEZ PARRILLA (Cuba) said the hearings on Puerto Rico were of special significance for that island, as well as for Latin America, the Caribbean and the world. Next year would mark the one hundredth anniversary of the annexation of Puerto Rico by the United States. As Caribbeans and Latin Americans, Puerto Ricans had maintained their national identity despite long years of subjugation. Cuba endorsed their right to self-determination in accordance with the 1960 Declaration on decolonization. The Movement of Non- Aligned countries had consistently endorsed that right, and every year petitioners from the island appeared before the Special Committee, demonstrating its commitment to their aspirations. Over the years, the Committee had approved 16 resolutions on Puerto Rico, while the United States had misled international public opinion on the situation there.
The truth could not be hidden, he said. The United States had been trying to deny the Puerto Rican people their rights. Its military presence on the island had been rejected by the people. The Special Committee should not forget the plight of Puerto Rican political prisoners, whose only crime was attempting to defend the rights of their people. They had been given long sentences in violation of international human rights statutes. The Special Committee, he said, must demonstrate solidarity with them.
The Special Committee had a duty to remain vigilant with respect to the situation in Puerto Rico, he said. There could be no referendum on the island's future while the United States military presence there continued. He reiterated his country's solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico.
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