SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - To cheers from hundreds of waiting supporters, Vieques Mayor Damaso Serrano walked free from a federal prison yesterday after spending four months behind bars over his protest against US Navy war games on the Puerto Rican island.
Serrano vowed that protests against the Navy's activities on Vieques would continue until it left the island.
''My incarceration was for a just cause, and today I feel stronger than ever to continue our struggle,'' said Serrano, pale and unshaven after his stay in the prison in San Juan.
Serrano was mobbed as he left the facility. Protest music and chants of ''Vieques, Yes; Navy, No'' accompanied him on a walk to a camp established by anti-Navy groups to show solidarity with those inside the jail serving time for acts of civil disobedience.
Serrano was one of more than 100 protesters who sneaked onto the Navy's bombing range on the east end of Vieques last April in an attempt to interrupt military maneuvers. He managed to hide out on the range during the Navy's entire five days of training and was arrested on the last day.
The four-month sentence handed down to Serrano was the harshest given to a protester arrested for the first time on the misdemeanor trespassing charge.
''I served an unjust sentence of four months for defending the best interest of the Vieques people,'' Serrano said.
When Serrano entered prison back in August, several US mainland politicians - notably New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and New York Governor George Pataki - had championed the cause of the 9,600 Vieques residents. The tiny island became an obligatory stop for New York politicians wooing the Latino vote back home.
But that was before the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan, which have diminished the calls for an immediate Navy exit from its Vieques training ground.
Even protest groups in Vieques called for a moratorium on protest incursions onto the range during a round of military maneuvers after Sept 11.
Serrano acknowledged that ''the panorama has changed,'' but said the protest movement would continue.
''Civil disobedience is the only thing that will stop the bombing and get the Navy to leave Vieques,'' Serrano said.
Other protest leaders expressed hope that his release will energize the Vieques movement.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company