WASHINGTON A congressman accused the Navy on Tuesday of "dehumanizing, degrading and punitive treatment" of protesters arrested for trying to close down a Navy and Marine Corps bombing range on a Puerto Rican island.
The criticism by Rep. Robert Menendez came during a five-hour hearing of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus into the events of April 27-May 1 on Vieques, just off Puerto Rico's main island, during demonstrations against bombing exercises on the Navy's range.
Among about a dozen witnesses testifying of alleged mistreatment by naval personnel were a Menendez colleague in Congress, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.; local Puerto Rican politicians and religious leaders; and actor Edward James Olmos. They were among 180 people arrested during the protests.
Actor Edward James Olmos, right, greets U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. on Capitol Hill Tuesday, June 5, 2001 during a break in a hearing of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The caucus was holding a hearing to investigate the arrests of Gutierrez and others demonstrating the U.S. Navy bombing of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
The pictures they drew of the events included students vomiting from pepper spray, women being subjected to repeated body searches and protesting being given little food and water for long periods. They spoke of physical abuse of detainees, obscene gestures toward young women and racial insults.
"Never in my life have I felt so denigrated as a woman and as a human being," said Jazmin Mejias, a member of the Puerto Rico Senate. "I could not understand or comprehend what was happening."
"We do not question that acts of civil disobedience have consequences. We do not question that arrests would be a reasonable consequence of trespassing on a U.S. military base," said Menendez, D-N.J., who chaired the hearing.
"What we do question are the allegations about the dehumanizing, degrading and punitive treatment received by those arrested at the hands of the United States Navy."
Most of the 18 members of the all-Democrat caucus oppose the Navy's use of the Vieques bombing range as a threat to the health and livelihood of island residents. The hearing was to draw attention to the allegations of Navy misconduct in arresting the demonstrators.
"These actions have absolutely no place in a democratic society," Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., said.
Acting Navy general counsel William Molzahn refused to comment on the arrests, saying it could compromise criminal proceedings. The U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico has not yet tried all those arrested on trespassing charges.
Molzahn said he had no knowledge of the events on Vieques, whether the Navy intends to investigate the allegations or the Navy's procedures for detentions and arrests.
At the time, a Navy spokesman in Puerto Rico said the accounts by Gutierrez and others were "absolutely false" and that all the protesters were treated with dignity and respect. They said Gutierrez provoked altercations by being "rude, obnoxious" and by threatening the careers of naval officers.
The Navy has used its range on the tiny island for six decades and says the training it affords is vital for national security.
On the Net: Navy Vieques Web site: http://www.navyvieques.navy.mil/
© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press