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Puerto Rico police agree to strengthen hate crime response

Gay News, Washington Blade, Puerto Rico, Hate Crimes

Pedro Julio Serrano (Photo courtesy of Pedro Julio Serrano)

The Puerto Rico Police Department agreed to strengthen its response to hate crimes in a settlement the Justice Department announced on Dec. 21.

DOJ ordered the PRPD to “collect accurate and reliable data hate crimes” on “an ongoing basis” and submit it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for inclusion in its annual Hate Crimes Statistics report. (The FBI currently reports statistics based on sexual orientation, but not gender identity and expression. It will begin to collect transgender-specific data this year as outlined in the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act that President Obama signed in 2009. The agency will begin to report them in 2014.)

The department agreed to develop policies that will improve the way its officers interact with transgender people while in custody. The PRPD will also provide officers with bias-free police trainings at least every two years and annually after 2017. Components of these sessions will include “the protection of civil rights as a central part of the police mission” and “arbitrary classifications and stereotyping” based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and other factors.

“These provisions are designed to promote police services that are equitable, respectful, and free of unlawful bias in a manner that supports broad community engagement and effective crime prevention,” the agreement reads. “These provisions will enable PRPD to provide members of the public with equal protection of the law, without bias based on race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

“We appreciate the hard work of [then-Gov. Luís] Fortuño, [PRPD] Superintendent Hector Pesquera and their staff,” Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ Civil Rights Division, said in a press release that announced the agreement. “Together, and with great input from the public, we have designed a comprehensive blueprint for reform that provides a solid foundation that will professionalize and support the hardworking men and women of PRPD as they protect the people of Puerto Rico.”

The DOJ’s announcement comes after its damning Sept. 2011 report that listed an inadequate response to hate crimes as among the PRPD’s numerous deficiencies.

More than 30 LGBT Puerto Ricans have been killed since gay teenager Jorge Steven López Mercado’s decapitated, dismembered and partially burned body was found alongside a remote roadside in Nov. 2009.

A judge sentenced Juan José Martínez Matos to 99-years in prison after he pledged guilty to the crime, but the Puerto Rico Department of Justice’s own reports indicate Puerto Rican prosecutors have yet to convict anyone under the island’s hate crimes law that includes both sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. The Puerto Rico Senate in late 2011 approved a proposal that would have eliminated LGBT-specific protections from the aforementioned statute.

Pedro Julio Serrano and other Puerto Rican LGBT advocates repeatedly criticized Fortuño and his administration for what they contend was an unwillingness to speak out against anti-LGBT violence in the American commonwealth in the wake of López’s brutal death that sent shockwaves across the island and around the world.

“It’s definitely too little too late for the outgoing administration,” Serrano told the Washington Blade in response to the DOJ agreement. “But it’s a good blueprint and protocol that is necessary to finally have this in place for the prosecutors in Puerto Rico so they can work on the hate crimes on the island and make sure they are correctly prosecuted and investigated as hate crimes because it hasn’t happened in Puerto Rico.”

The DOJ also met with Gov. Alejandro García Padilla, who succeeded Fortuño on Wednesday, to discuss the agreement.

“We look forward to working with Governor-elect García Padilla and his incoming administration to finalize the agreement and begin the critical work of rebuilding PRPD,” Perez said before the current governor took office. “Ensuring effective, constitutional policing is not a partisan issue, and we appreciate the commitment of Gov. Fortuño and Governor-elect García Padilla to the reforms embodied in the agreement. The successful implementation of the reforms contained in this agreement will help to reduce crime, ensure respect for the Constitution and restore public confidence in PRPD.”

García pledged during his campaign he would support a number of LGBT-specific proposals that include the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the island’s anti-employment discrimination law, civil unions for same-sex couples and including LGBT Puerto Ricans in the island’s domestic violence statutes. Serrano urged the incoming administration to amend the hate crimes law to allow prosecutors to introduce bias-related evidence at the start of a trial as opposed to during the sentencing phase.

“We want it from the get go to be prosecuted as a hate crime so the evidence and a way the case is prosecuted is a following the motivation of the crime and it’s not left to the end of the process where usually after they get a conviction or someone pleads guilty then they don’t have to deal the motivation because they already got what they wanted,” he said, adding he feels both the PRPD and the Puerto Rico Justice Department do not understand how to address hate crimes. “The only way to curb anti-LGBT violence in Puerto Rico is we finally prosecute these as hate crimes and people understand the motivation behind them was anti-LGBT.”

The DOJ agreement will take effect on April 15.

03
Jan
2013

Puerto Rico man to face hate crime charge in gay hairstylist’s death

Gay News, Washington Blade, Puerto Rico, Hate Crimes

Pedro Julio Serrano (Photo courtesy of Pedro Julio Serrano)

Puerto Rican officials on Thursday announced the murder of a gay hairstylist earlier this week was a hate crime.

El Nuevo Día and other local media outlets reported that Richard Soto Vélez, 20, confessed to killing Milton Medina Morales on Feb. 3 after he said they went fishing in three local rivers near Mayagüez on the island’s west coast. Soto reportedly told investigators he became enraged after the two men were unable to catch anything and attacked Medina with a machete.

Primera Hora reported on Friday that prosecutor Yanixa NegrĂłn Rosado will seek a first degree murder as a hate crime charge against Soto. He will also face weapons and destruction of evidence charges.

“This is a historic moment, because it is the first time a hate crime is an aggravating factor in a case,” Pedro Julio Serrano of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force said in a statement late Thursday.

Medina’s death comes less than two months after the Puerto Rico Police Department agreed to strengthen its response to hate crimes as part of a broad settlement with the Justice Department.

Gay teenager Jorge Steven López Mercado’s brutal 2009 murder highlighted the rampant anti-LGBT violence in the American commonwealth.

Serrano and other LGBT rights advocates routinely criticized local officials for not seeking prosecutions under the island’s 2002 hate crimes law that includes both sexual orientation and gender identity. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is among those who blasted former Gov. Luís Fortuño for what they contend was his administration’s unwillingness to speak out against rampant anti-LGBT violence on the island.

“We are confident that prosecutor Yanixa Negrón Rosado, as with Judge Linette Ortiz Martínez will maintain this mitigating factor and will prove it during the trial,” Serrano added. “[It] will set a historic precedent that will open the door to ensure that the other hate crimes will not go unpunished.”

A preliminary hearing for Soto, who remains held on $2 million bail, is scheduled to take place on Feb. 20.

08
Feb
2013

Saba becomes first Caribbean island to legalize same-sex marriage

Saba, Glenn Holm, gay news, Washington Blade

Saba Tourist Bureau Director Glenn Holm (Photo courtesy of Glenn Holm)

The Dutch island of Saba earlier this month became the first jurisdiction in the Caribbean to allow same-sex couples to legally marry.

Xiomar Gonzales Cedeno Ruis and Israel Ruis Gonzales from Aruba and Venezuela respectively exchanged vows at the island’s courthouse on Dec. 4. A same-sex couple from Curaçao married in Saba on Tuesday.

The Netherlands, which has allowed gays and lesbians to marry since 2001, gave its Caribbean territories more time to implement the same-sex marriage law. Observers expect Bonaire and St. Eustatius, which were formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles that formally dissolved in 2010, will follow suit.

Aruba, Curaçao and St. Maarten, which have greater autonomy from Amsterdam, do not allow gays and lesbians to legally marry. The three islands, along with Bonaire and St. Eustatius, must recognize same-sex marriages performed within the Netherlands.

Glenn Holm, the openly gay director of the Saba Tourist Bureau who worked with Cedeno and Ruis, told the Washington Blade he plans to promote “gay weddings on the highest point of the Dutch kingdom” while in the Netherlands next month.

“There are of course some people who are against it, but they will just have to get used to it,” he said, referring to Dutch euthanasia and abortion laws that will soon take effect on Saba, Bonaire and St. Eustatius. “It simply means that the choice is there should it be necessary, the same for same-sex unions. If it’s not your bag you don’t have to let it concern you. Live and let live, love and be allowed to love whosoever you choose to.”

Martinique and Guadeloupe are expected to consider the issue next year as French lawmakers debate a same-sex marriage bill. Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President RaĂşl Castro, has spoken out in support of nuptials for gays and lesbians, but LGBT people still face systematic discrimination and even violence throughout the region.

Jamaica and several other English-speaking Caribbean countries still have colonial-era sodomy laws on the books that criminalize same-sex sexual acts. The U.S. State Department, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have all criticized the Jamaican government for not doing enough to curb rampant anti-LGBT violence in the country.

Puerto Rican advocates have repeatedly criticized outgoing Gov. Luís Fortuño and his administration for what they contend was an unwillingness to speak out against anti-LGBT violence in the American commonwealth in the wake of gay teenager Jorge Steven López Mercado’s brutal 2009 murder. The Puerto Rico Senate late last year approved a proposal that would have eliminated LGBT-specific protections from the island’s hate crimes law.

A 2011 Justice Department report that blasted the Puerto Rico Police Department cited an inadequate response to hate crimes as among its numerous deficiencies.

Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican lawyer with AIDS-Free World who fled his homeland in February after he received death threats following local media reports about his marriage to a Canadian man, described same-sex marriage in Saba as a “toehold where we can advance LGBT human rights in the Caribbean.”

The Supreme Court of Jurisdicture of Belize in May is expected to hear a case challenging the country’s sodomy laws. AIDS-Free World has also challenged laws in Belize and Trinidad and Tobago that prohibit gay people and those with disabilities from entering the country.

A Trinidadian newspaper on Dec. 18 reported Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar wrote in a private letter to the head of an international LGBT advocacy group in the United Kingdom that she would support a ban anti-LGBT discrimination.

“As a human rights activist, I think it’s excellent because it’s a way to get up the laws and two it provides evidence for the courts to say there is absolutely no negative impact within this entire region of these rights being recognized for LGBT,” Tomlinson told the Blade, referring specifically to Saba. “Its evidence that even within the Caribbean you have forward-thinking legislators who are willing to push the envelope and take the political risks that are necessary to advance human rights of all citizens.”

19
Dec
2012