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Inter Press Service

American-Born Dissident Expecting Release

By Gustavo Gonzalez

August 23, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Inter Press Service / Global Information Network. All rights reserved.

VIEQUES , Puerto Rico , Aug. 23 (IPS) -- "Bob: we await your release Oct. 2, 2002. U.S. navy out!" says a sign posted near the gates to Camp GarcIa, the main military base of the United States on the small Puerto Rican island of Vieques .

"Bob" is Robert Rabin, 45, a U.S. citizen, who is serving a six-month sentence in Guaynabo, the federal prison where the repeat civil disobedience offenders of Vieques are sent. The facility is located on the main island of Puerto Rico , a free associate state of the United States.

The Vieques Rescue and Development Committee has adopted civil disobedience as its method of peaceful resistance to the presence of the U.S. navy and its ongoing bombing and target exercises.

Vieques , located just east of the main island, covers 65 square km and is home to 9,400 people, who live on 25 percent of the territory.

Since 1942, the rest of the land has been gradually taken over by the U.S. navy, which uses the area for its bases and for war manoeuvres, which occur an average of 200 days each year.

President George W. Bush announced in July 2001 that the navy would withdraw entirely from Vieques by May 1, 2003. The move was seen as a result of the pressure created when 68 percent of the island's electorate voted in a referendum for immediate demilitarization.

Rabin is one of the leading activists at the Peace and Justice Camp, which is run by the Committee just outside the gates to Camp GarcIa.

"We met here on Vieques around 1980. I came here as a science teacher to work in the public schools, and he, as a university student, came from the United States to conduct research about the military presence on the island," said Nilda Medina, a friend of Rabin, in an interview with IPS.

The U.S.-born activist is the director of the Vieques Historic Archive and of the Fort Conde de Mirasol Museum of the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture, as well as a member of the Committee's board.

"Bob was arrested in April, along with a group of people who entered the firing range where the navy conducts its bombing exercises. One bomb landed in front of him, another just behind him. And then they stopped the bombing," recalled Medina.

Other protesters were arrested at the time, but they have already been released. Rabin received the maximum penalty -- six months behind bars -- because he was a repeat offender.

On May 20, 2000, he trespassed on U.S. navy base property, an "invasion" to peacefully protest the military manoeuvres. The authorities brutally cracked down on the action and Rabin ended up in the hospital as a result of the blows he received.

"Without firing a shot, without the least aggression against those who attack us, we were able to paralyse more than 30,000 soldiers and 30 warships, including aircraft carriers and submarines," the activist stated at the time.

Later, the Federal Court sentenced him to a year of probation, during which time any act committed in the sphere of civil disobedience, or re-entry into the military base would have automatically landed him in prison for six months, said Medina.

The year of probation ended in February, "and then Bob entered his second process of civil disobedience and trespassed in April. This time he was indeed sentenced to six months in prison, which ends Oct. 7," she added.

"To enter the training area, you have to walk or enter by sea. Walking takes six to 10 hours. It is very inhospitable terrain, very hot and lots of thorny plants. By sea, it can be good or bad. One has to enter at the most strategic moment," the teacher told IPS.

"I couldn't tell you how Bob got in, but he did," she said with a smile.

Since his arrest, Rabin has been sent twice to "the hole", an isolation cell in which the prisoner enters wearing handcuffs.

"Once inside, you stick your hands through an opening so they take off the handcuffs. You remain inside 24 hours. They only take you out for a little while, maybe a half-hour, for exercise. The rest of the time you're in the hole," explained Medina.

Each stay in "the hole" lasts four or five days. Rabin was first sent there -- with no explanation -- the day before the trial. The second time was because he had led protests inside the prison about the restrictions on visits and for statements he had made to the press denouncing violations of prisoners' rights inside the Guaynabo facility.

"Our island is on the verge of being bombed again, violated by the U.S. armed forces, which for more than a half-century have robbed us of peace. And they continue to act against the desires expressed democratically by our people," said Rabin on Aug. 11 in a message sent from prison.

Rabin's face, which appears on the sign at the peace camp that serves as a reminder of his release date, has become one of the symbols of the campaign, which involves a large portion of the Vieques population, to rid the island of U.S. navy presence.

Another icon is the face of Milivy, a four-year-old girl who developed cancer as a result of the heavy metal contamination of the island caused by the artillery used in the military exercises. She is fighting for her life at a hospital in the U.S. city of Philadelphia, Puerto Rican Senator Velda Gonzalez told IPS.

The series of signs and murals posted outside Camp GarcIa in protest against the U.S. navy alternate with white wooden crosses bearing names in black or light blue, "in memory of the people of Vieques who fell victim to the military accidents and environmental contamination."

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