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ARGENTINA | 02-05-2020 07:32

Protest against release of prisoners ups pressure on Fernández

Noisy cacerolazo protest, heard in major cities across the country, highlights growing anger at granting of house arrest to criminals during coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday evening, in numerous neighbourhoods across the capital, the din of saucepans banging in a cacerolazo protest could be heard loud and clear.

The 8pm demonstration, which saw residents take to their gardens, windows and balconies (all the while remaining under isolation inside their homes) to protest the release of convicts, was much louder than even the applause for medical personnel at 9pm, a nightly occurrence in Argentina since the eve of quarantine on March 19.

The difference was also reflected in most this week’s media coverage for virtually the first time in seven weeks the pandemic had competition as the top story even if Covid-19 lay at the root of this problem, as with so many others.

Organised via social networks and promoted by opposition lawmakers and those critical of the government of Peronist President Alberto Fernández, the cacerolazo was heard loudly in various parts of the capital, most strongly in Belgrano, Núñez, Retiro, Recoleta, San Telmo, Villa Urquiza and Flores.

Digital media outlets reported that pot-banging was also heard strongly in provincial cities such as Santa Fe, Rosario, Mendoza and Salta, among others.

MASS EXODUS?

The protest comes in response to a spate of stories in local media outlets highlighting the release of prisoners from Argentina’s overcrowded penitentiary system, amid fears that the Covid-19 novel coronavirus may sweep through the country’s jails. The first confirmed cases – wardens, prisoners and guards – were confirmed last week.

Government officials, speaking anonymously, described the protest as “logical and fair” in briefings with journalists, saying that they did not agree with the release of violent criminals, including rapists and murderers. They added, however, that the demonstration had been “fuelled” by some sectors of the opposition.

Critics, including various members of the ruling coalition, have been strident in their criticism, with with some of the most hostile media coverage and tens of trending hashtags on social media  implying that a massive exit of homicidal maniacs was underway.

Hundreds of convicts in health risk groups were indeed granted house arrest or early release but the overwhelming majority remain behind bars (the overcrowded prison population of over 52,000 in Buenos Aires Province accounting for around 80 percent of the freed convicts was reduced by less than 1,000).

One criminal court judge in Quilmes, Julia Elena Márquez, said Friday that more than 1,000 people jailed for heft and property crimes had been released, along with 276 individuals imprisoned for offences against other people. She also said that 176 inmates with convictions for “crmes against sexual integrity” had been released.

Several dangerous prisoners – including at least three murderers and two rapists, one of whom was granted house arrest almost next door to his victim had slipped through the cracks, according to local reports.

‘MEDIA CAMPAIGN’

The critics made the most of these cases. So was the criticism over the top? President Alberto Fernández thought so, attributing the outcry to a “malicious media campaign” and denying any intention of pardoning or freeing dangerous criminals.

“They want to make us believe that there will be a massive exodus,” he tweeted.

As he has done in various interviews, the president reiterated that the Executive branch had no say over matters of justice, saying the decisions lie with the courts.

Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof backed him up with a parallel message: “I ask for the maximum responsibility with such a delicate issue. Let us not add more fears to the population. Just like the national government, our only plan is to look after everybody’s health and life.”

Not everyone is on the same page, however. Kicillof’s Security Minister Sergio Berni had a different take: “The prisoners are lucky that they do not depend on my opinion because they already know what it is – none of them should leave [jail].”

Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa has also spoken out.

Yet the criticism was not confined to the law and order brigade (which also has supporters among government ranks beyond Berni) human rights groups felt unease over the decision to grant house arrest to Carlos Capdevila, who was the doctor at the ESMA Navy Mechanics School concentration camp during the 1976-83 military dictatorship. Relatives of the victims of femicide expressed similar concerns, rejecting coronavirus as sufficient reason for release.

Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo President Estela de Carlotto said Friday that “those detained for crimes against humanity should not have house arrest,” adding that “the Judiciary must reverse those decisions.”

Women, Gender and Diversity Minister Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta also came out strongly against the release of those accused or convicted of sexual crimes and gender violence.

“Since the beginning of the health emergency, we have expressed our concern about the possible increase in gender based violence and the expiration of measures such as restrictions on proximity, to which are now added the freedoms of those accused and convicted of crimes against sexual integrity and gender violence,” the minister said in a statement, saying she was aware of cases involving rapists who had been set free.

PRISON ISSUES

The outcry against the releases or house arrests grew in volume to displace the recent wave of violent mutinies (such as at the Villa Devoto jail in the capital) as the central prison issue.

By midweek President Fernández was partially backtracking. At the start of the week he gave his support to the release of common criminals in the light of the risks of contagion presented to overcrowded prisons by the coronavirus pandemic. But on Wednesday he pronounced himself against pardon for criminals while passing the responsibility onto the judges.

“In Argentina, the solution to the problem is in the hands of the courts. They are the natural judges of whether they consider release necessary. The cassation courts have made some very timely recommendations to confront the problem,” he wrote in messages posted online, while deploring the conduct of those who exploit this issue to stoke up unrest by claiming that “any [prisoner] is being released any old way.”

Many other countries around the world have also freed prisoners to reduce the pandemic risk (1,300 last month in Chile alone), he pointed out, whether via pardons, commutations or leaving the issue to the courts.

What remained striking was that it was the president himself who stepped up to the plate to face the controversy throughout the week, with Justice Minister Marcela Losardo – the official most responsible – remaining mostly silent throughout the week.

On Thursday evening, Losardo told the TN news channel that the demonstration “must be taken into account.”

Losardo, a long-term friend of the president said he thought it was “unfair” that the Executive branch was being blamed for something “it has nothing to do with.”

BEG TO DIFFER

Government sources stressed that house arrest should not be equated with release or a pardon and that no murderers or rapists were being let out of jail. But critics begged to differ about the murderers and rapists, naming some specific cases, and pointed out that the penal system has run out of electronic anklets and bracelets to monitor the latest wave of house arrests, thus relying on trust alone.

In fact, the process of letting prisoners out of jail is not linear with house arrest and early release not the only distinction. The process unfolds along at least two parallel lines – at one level there are the health risks groups (limited to certain categories such as non-violent crimes, prison terms of less than three years or nearing completion, the pregnant, the HIV infected, etc.) but long before the pandemic some judges have been more permissive (and, more recently, some more sensitive to prison overcrowding) than others and these are continuing to order the release of certain prisoners, as always. This latter trend is often placed in the same bracket as pandemic compassion, confusing the issue.

Cassation judge Víctor Violini was singled out for particular criticism as starting the recent problems with an April 7 ruling that all prisoners with light sentences at risk be granted house arrest, thus leading to 102 convicts walking out of prison in a single day. But Violini does not have the last word the mass release of convicts has been taken before the Buenos Aires Provincial Supreme Court.

Among the critics, Patricia Bullrich, the outspoken former Security minister who now chairs Macri’s PRO centre-right party, is unlikely to take a back seat. She accused the government of provoking the prisoners into pressing for their freedom by trying last month to grant house arrest to former transport secretary Ricardo Jaime, convicted on multiple counts of corruption.

Speaking on the Intratables television programme, Bullrich rejected prison overcrowding as justifying any exit for convicts, saying that ways must be found to place dangerous prisoners in solitary confinement or otherwise distancing them, which would be preferable to “having them prowling around the neighbourhoods hunting out their victims.”

President Fernández denied that the government had requested house arrest for Jaime. “The government did not request anybody’s release. There was a procedural possibility” which ended with the Federal Cassation Court rejecting the benefit for the ex-official", he said.

The Justice and Human Rights Ministry said last week that it supported the application for house arrest but did not pass any judgement on Jaime’s guilt or innocence.

Bullrich’s approach was echoed strongly by her Radical allies in the Juntos por el Cambio opposition coalition, who warned of “an epidemic of crime.” Those sentiments were not not confined to the opposition with Sergio Massa saying that “sentences are meant to be served” and that any magistrate irresponsibly releasing criminals should be impeached.

Many critics centred on the irony that while most law-abiding citizens were confined to their homes in quarantine, criminals sentenced to prison were being set free.

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