IACHR: Repression and criminalization of social protest in Jujuy

The Argentine state was called to appear before the IACHR to give its response regarding the repression and criminalization of social protest in Jujuy. In that province criminal, misdemeanor and administrative proceedings are used to limit the right to protest, freedom of expression and freedom of association.

A hearing was held today before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to address the repression and criminalization of social protest in the Jujuy. The Argentine state was called upon to respond to the assertions by the petitioning organizations that sustain that criminal, misdemeanor and administrative proceedings are used in the province to limit the rights to protest, freedom of expression and association. The generalized persecution of organizations and leaders is done through lawsuits, repression of public demonstrations, arbitrary detentions, fines, site closures, among other state responses in violation of rights.

The state representatives did not respond to the objections. The representative for the province of Jujuy instead acknowledged that the provincial state had brought nine suits against persons who were exercising their right to protest.

Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, underscored that protest cannot be reduced to a theoretical statement; respect for the freedom of expression cannot be split from its realization – either because it is prohibited in a certain place or permitted only at certain times, under threat of illegality. He also asserted that, from the standpoint of international standards, protests are not rendered automatically illegal just because a road or street has been cut off.

Furthermore, in light of stories of legal status having been withdrawn from some organizations and the application of fines, Lanza and Commissioner Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño expressed concern over the enforcement of the freedom of expression in the province. We underline that the state made a commitment during the hearing to modify the crime of sedition so that it cannot to be used against persons exercising their rights. We hope that, in the same vein, it accepts the IACHR’s offer to support a possible review of local legislation – including the Jujuy Misdemeanor Code – to bring it in line with international human rights standards.

Belissa Guerrero Rivas, of the Amnesty International Regional Office, opened the intervention for the petitioning organizations. She introduced the context experienced in Jujuy, which reflects a state of affairs designed and coordinated to respond to social conflict through the use of repression and criminalization as a disciplinary measure.

Rafael Vargas, Secretary General of the Ledesma Sugar Mill Workers and Employees Union of Jujuy (SOEAIL, according to its acronym in Spanish), told how 80 workers suffered injuries from rubber bullets, tear gas and beatings by provincial security forces during protests over salary negotiations in 2016. The provincial governor, Gerardo Morales, then took legal action through misdemeanor court, which levied a fine on the union. Eight union leaders, two legal advisors and six workers were criminalized for their roles in the protest.

Oscar Nuttini of the La Esperanza Sugar Workers and Employees Union of San Pedro (SOEA, according to its acronym in Spanish) said that workers who request salary increases and better labor conditions at that state-run mill are prosecuted for crimes of incitement to commit a crime or usurpation. Fernando Acosta, of the Asosciación de Trabajadores del Estado (ATE) and the Central de Trabajadores Argentinos (CTA), said that there are black lists of state workers. For example, nearly 700 employees with short-term contracts were let go for being affiliated with the ATE and told they must quit their union membership if they wanted to be reincorporated.

After a meeting in December 2015, the network of social organizations resolved to hold a camp-in to await government response. The government responded by applying the Misdemeanor Code and filing complaints against the organizations and their leaders; it promoted criminal action and charged the district attorney on duty with not ordering the vacation by force of the thousands of protesters; issued a decree to suspend the legal status of the main social organization; detained leaders that carried on with the protest, levied fines, and suspended civil and democratic rights, among other measures.

Elena Chaves, of the organization Abogados y Abogadas del Noroeste Argentino en Derechos Humanos y Estudios Sociales (ANDHES), highlighted the violations of the right to social protest authorized under the Jujuy Misdemeanor Code. Under that Code, any protest on a street, avenue or road can be sanctioned, because it penalizes the occupation of public space and the obstruction of vehicular traffic. The lack of specificity of the Code leaves broad discretion as to its interpretation. Protests can thus result in misdemeanor charges against the organization in the way of fines, closures, seizure of assets, among others.

Horacio Verbitsky, of the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), indicated that “the absolutely unconsitutional and unconventional deprivation of civil and political rights has been applied to protesters in Jujuy.” He said that this situation “is a genernalized problem throughout the province” and that the arbitrary detention of Milagro Sala is a manifestation of this scenario. He emphasized the government’s double talk, whose representatives asserted during the hearing that “dignity was restored to the protest cooperators” who participated in the camp-in around the Government House, when in fact they were urged to vacate the site under threat of removal of their legal status and their elegibility to participate in social and housing plans.

Sindicato de Obreros y Empleados del Azúcar del Ingenio Ledesma de Jujuy (SOEAIL)
Sindicato de Obreros y Empleados del Azúcar del Ingenio La Esperanza de San Pedro (SOEA de la Esperanza)
Centro de Profesionales por los Derechos Humanos (CEPRODH)
Abogados y Abogadas del Noroeste Argentino en Derechos Humanos y Estudios Sociales (ANDHES)
Amnesty International
Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS)