Covering events from January - December 2003

The USA stopped using the island of Vieques as a military training ground, thereby ending three years of protest outside the US naval base there. Puerto Rico's sodomy law was effectively voided by a US Supreme Court ruling.


The US government stopped using Vieques (an island off the east coast of Puerto Rico) as a military training area on 1 May. Vieques had been used as a US naval base and training ground for more than 50 years but had been dogged by protests since 1999 when naval bombing exercises accidentally killed a civilian security guard.

No information was available regarding the outcome of a complaint filed with the US Justice Department alleging that the navy used excessive force against demonstrators at the Vieques base in April 2002. It was alleged that US marines had bombarded peaceful demonstrators with tear gas and pepper spray, causing several injuries. The navy had denied using excessive force.

Legal reform

A Puerto Rico law which criminalizes consensual sexual relationships between men was effectively voided by a US Supreme Court ruling in June. The ruling – given in a Texas case but applying to all state and commonwealth laws – held that anti-sodomy laws which made private sexual conduct a crime violated gay men's rights to privacy and liberty under the US Constitution.

Federal death penalty

In July the first death penalty trial in Puerto Rico for more than 75 years ended in acquittal for the two defendants. Héctor Oscar Acosta Martínez and Joel Rivera Alejandro had been charged under the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act with the 1998 abduction and murder of Jorge Hernández Díaz, a grocer. The US government's pursuit of the death penalty in the case had sparked protests in Puerto Rico which has been abolitionist since 1929.

Puerto Rico's 1952 Constitution defines the island as a self-governing commonwealth and also enshrines the abolitionist statement: "the death penalty shall not exist." Lawyers for Héctor Oscar Acosta Martínez and Joel Rivera Alejandro challenged the federal government's decision to seek death sentences against their clients. In 2000, a US District Court judge ruled that the death penalty could not be an option in the case, noting that Puerto Ricans have no vote in US presidential elections and have only a single non-voting representative in Congress. However, in June 2001 the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit overturned the District Court's decision. It held that the federal death penalty could apply in Puerto Rico, and that the US government could pursue death sentences against Héctor Oscar Acosta Martínez and Joel Rivera Alejandro.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.