NAVY'S MISTREATMENT OF PROTESTORS ON VIEQUES

by TRUTHOUT 2001 Sunday, Jun. 10, 2001 at 8:53 AM

GUTIERREZ TESTIFIES BEFORE CONGRESSIONAL PANEL ON NAVY'S MISTREATMENT OF PEACEFUL PROTESTORS ON VIEQUES Congressional Hispanic Caucus conducts hearings on abuse of demonstrators Navy representative admits that video tapes show Congressman cooperating with police, not resisting arrest

WASHINGTON, D.C.-- U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) today provided his Congressional colleagues with an official account of the treatment that he and other peaceful protestors received at the hands of the U.S. Navy on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques in late April.

During a special hearing of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus held on Capitol Hill, Gutierrez gave testimony in which he detailed various acts of mistreatment by Naval personnel and directly challenged statements made previously by Pentagon officials.

"Just as the bombing itself was wrong, the way many of these peaceful protestors were treated by the U.S. Navy was also wrong," Gutierrez said.

The hearing was convened to investigate the incidents surrounding the arrests of approximately 170 people who had engaged in peaceful acts of civil disobedience on Vieques on April 27 and 28 to protest the Navy's continued bombing of the island, which is home to 10,000 people.

The hearing also included a noteworthy admission by a representative sent by the U.S. Navy.

After watching a video tape showing the behavior of Gutierrez and other protestors in the moments before, during and after their arrest by military police, the Navy official conceded that Gutierrez did not resist arrest-- a claim that military personnel had made in the days and weeks following the incident. Navy spokesmen had repeatedly insisted that the abusive behavior of military police had been justified because protestors had allegedly been uncooperative.

However, William Molzahn, acting general counsel for the Department of the Navy, was compelled to offer a different reaction after watching the video tape, which included some raw footage never before televised. The video showed Gutierrez and other protestors complying fully with the military police who ordered them to sit on the ground, prepare to be handcuffed and then be led away from the site. Protestors could be heard to be singing songs and chanting "Paz por Vieques" ("Peace for Vieques") as they were arrested.

"From what I could see (of the video)," Molzahn admitted in response to questioning from Rep. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) who asked him to describe Gutierrez' behavior, "I did not see any resistance."

On other points, Molzahn shed no light on the Navy's internal investigation of the incident. He repeatedly declined to respond substantively to almost all other questions posed to him by caucus members, claiming that he and his staff had not had time to fully look into the matter.

Gutierrez and other protestors were arrested in late April after demonstrating against the U.S. Navy's continued bombing of the island of Vieques, which the military has used for training for sixty years. The Naval activities have been tied to a number of problems, ranging from high rates of cancer and cardiac disease to the debasement of the island's economy and ecology.

During his testimony, Gutierrez described his treatment after being arrested, which included being forced to kneel on ground strewn with rocks and sharp debris. A member of the police unit kicked Gutierrez' legs out from under him which caused Gutierrez to fall face-first to the ground. He then picked Gutierrez up by his shirt and pants and dropped Gutierrez several feet away, face down. He then placed his boot on the back of Gutierrez' neck.

Gutierrez and other protestors were detained overnight in an open-air facility which, it was later learned, was a dog shelter. The dog shelter had no roof-- despite the Navy's later claims to the

contrary. It was exposed to the elements, infested with bugs and lizards, and smelled of waste. The facility had a concrete floor on which the protestors spent the night following their arrest.

"Quite simply, the facility was not fit for human habitation," Gutierrez said. He added, in response to questions, that the protestors remained handcuffed at all times while in the dog shelter-- even when using its makeshift facilities.

Approximately twenty hours passed before Gutierrez was able to communicate with anyone by phone. Gutierrez eventually spent a total of three nights in detention following his arrest-- one night on Vieques, and two in a jail located outside of San Juan before being allowed to post bail.

Gutierrez said that the treatment of the protestors "speaks of the general attitude of the U.S. Navy toward the growing demand for peace in Vieques."

Other protestors had experienced treatment similar to that described in the hearing. Among them were legislators from Puerto Rico, including Sen. Norma Burgos and Sen. Velda Gonzalez, vice-president of the Puerto Rican Senate. Both women spoke of being handled inappropriately by Naval personnel, both male and female, following their arrests. Sen. Gonzalez had recently undergone radiation treatment for cancer, a procedure that left her body sensitive to pain. Additional witnesses included the island's parish priest, Rev. Nelson Lopez, and actor Edward James Olmos.