US call for executions infuriates Puerto Ricans

Tension was rekindled between the United States and Puerto Rico yesterday with the opening of a grisly kidnap and murder trial in the capital, San Juan. American prosecutors are demanding the death penalty, although the Caribbean island banned capital punishment in 1929.

Church and legal groups call the demand an insult to the island. The affair is reawakened arguments about the status of Puerto Rico, which has a commonwealth relationship with the United States. Puerto Ricans are US citizens but they cannot vote and qualify for only limited government benefits.

The campaign, which has caused protests in San Juan, is to some extent a replay of the controversy over the use by the US navy of a bombing range on Vieques, a small Puerto Rican island. Anger over the practice led Washington to abandon use of the range in May.

Puerto Rico instituted a constitutional ban on capital punishment in 1929. But the prosecutors are invoking a 1994 US crime law that makes it possible for federal authorities to seek the death penalty in murder cases anywhere on US territory, even in states where executions are outlawed.

Two Puerto Ricans, Hector Acosta Martinez and Joel Rivera Alejandro, are charged with kidnapping a local businessman in 1998, murdering him and chopping up his body after his family alerted police instead of paying a ransom of $1m (£600,000).

Politicians on the island have largely united over the death penalty demand. "It's not right for the US to impose a law Puerto Ricans had no hand in crafting," Puerto Rican Senator Fernando Martin, a member of the Independence Party, said.

The governor of Puerto Rico, Sila Calderon, has avoided taking a stance but she pledged to use the controversy "to seek improvements in the commonwealth relationship".

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