U.S. allows hunger striker on its property

Saturday, May 22, 1999 10:48
Herald Staff Writer

Sitting in a wheelchair, water-only hunger striker Ramon Saul Sanchez moved his 17-day-old fast 100 feet across the street Friday after the government relented on the venue of his protest -- but not on releasing his boat, The Human Rights.

``Morally, I feel very, very strong. I'm surprised by how strong I feel,'' said a weak-looking Sanchez, 44, who has lost 27 pounds in more than two weeks.

The founder of the Democracy Movement was buoyed by the arrival just moments earlier of a hand-written card from Florida's Republican governor.

``Dear Ramon: My prayers are with you,'' it said. ``Stay strong. Sincerely, Jeb Bush.''

Tiny print on the card added, ``not printed at taxpayer expense.''

Amid shouts of ``¡Adelante!''  and ``¡Libertad!,''  Sanchez stopped lunchtime traffic at West Flagler Street and First Avenue by moving from a city park diagonally across the street to the Claude Pepper Federal Building.

He was surrounded by dozens of supporters, federal and local police officers, and escorted on either side in his wheelchair by Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican, amid the whir of TV and still cameras.

Federal authorities at first denied his petition for a permit to stage the hunger strike at the federal building. Democracy Movement lawyers and the ACLU on Monday asked a federal judge to intervene on Sanchez's right to protest on U.S. property.

On Thursday, just moments before an emergency hearing, the government relented. By agreement of federal authorities, he can sit outside the building from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. seven days a week.

Miami's ACLU chapter president, John de Leon, called the decision ``an important victory. . . . It demonstrates that there is no federal xemption to the First Amendment.''

Democracy Movement members said Sanchez's 12-foot-by-12-foot tent will remain across the street. Sanchez has used a portable latrine there, slept there, lain in a cot or sprawled in a recliner there since starting the fast May 5.

Supporters attend to him around the clock and also solicit signatures on preprinted letters to President Clinton, protesting the boat's seizure. A pointed banner addressed to Clinton's national security advisor also decorated the spot Friday.

``Sandy Berger: You are the threat  to national security!,'' it said.

The Coast Guard seized the 35-foot fiberglass fishing boat Dec. 10 at sea after Sanchez refused to pledge not to sail into Cuban waters. Sanchez vows not to eat until its release.

Howard Simon, Miami's ACLU director, said intensive talks were continuing with at least five different federal agencies on getting the boat freed from a Key West dry dock. They include the National Security Council, the State Department, the Coast Guard, Customs and the Treasury Department.

Otherwise, he said, the ACLU and Democracy Movement intend to challenge -- in court -- the extraordinary World War I-era presidential maritime powers that let the government seize the boat.

The Clinton administration discovered the powers as a way of defusing tensions between the exile community and the Cuban government after Cuba in February 1996 shot down two Brothers to the Rescue airplanes.

``It's in everybody's interest for the government to return the boat and keep Saul Sanchez alive as a leader of the exile community,'' Simon said.

Diaz-Balart again Friday characterized the extraordinary Clinton administration measures as serving to safeguard the Cuban regime from both peaceful and violent protest at the expense of U.S. civil liberties.

Penelas, a lawyer, said he has studied the matter and had found no justification for the government's using the law to seize Sanchez's vessel. 

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