An omnibus crime bill made its way out of a Legislative Assembly committee on security last week and now awaits a debate on the assembly floor.
Fabio Masís, assistant to the committee president and Libertarian Movement Party legislator Luis Barrantes, said the bill would likely be debated this month and possibly passed in December.
The bill, first proposed by Vice President Laura Chinchilla in March, is a lot less “omni” after the committee took a scalpel to it, paring it from 123 pages to 52.
Legislators excised many of the original proposals, including those that granted greater seizure and wiretapping powers to police against organized crime, longer preventive prison terms and stripping foreign residents of the right to acquire firearms (TT, March 14).
Legislators said the measures against organized crime was removed because of its complexity but that the committee was still studying the matter separately. Cutting that language from the bill, however, unleashed a mini-controversy in early September, with Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias and Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese calling on lawmakers to give organized crime first priority.
“Organized crime is more complex, but that doesn’t mean (the bill) shouldn’t urgently be passed,” Arias said on Sept. 1.
“International experience shows that the only way to combat this very organized curse is with extraordinary measures.”
In an interview with the daily La Nación, Dall’Anese said legislators are basically killing Costa Ricans with their lack of action.
“It’s as if you go to the doctor with a tumor, and the doctor says it’s better not to operate, so you have to die,” he said. “This is what the lawmakers are doing with Costa Ricans.”
A December passage of the bill would still mean the Legislative Assembly is not going to comply with an Oct. 11 deadline they agreed to in April with the Recuperemos La Paz movement (TT, April 18). That movement was created by advertising executives in March with backing from some news media, such as the daily La Nación, to pressure the government to reform laws to more aggressively take on crime.
Movement leaders agreed to soften and even stop their ads in return for access to politicians and the legislative process. The April 11 agreement, which was signed by representatives from all three branches of the government, including President Oscar Arias. But they now say they feel “defrauded” by the government.
Arnoldo Garnier, head of the Garnier Group ad agency and founder of Recuperemos, said he has been frozen out of the legislative process in recent months, and that presidential representatives, including Chinchilla, no longer respond to his inquiries.
“We feel defrauded because we agreed to shut up for a while as part of that (April 11) agreement,” he said. “But they were supposed to do their part, and so far they haven’t and now they don’t even respond to our inquiries. So it’s time to raise the tone of the campaign again and pressure them.”
In the last month, Recuperemos put up a clock on its Web site to count down the Oct. 11 deadline the government agreed to and has began running ads calling on voters to pressure legislators to comply.
“We’re going to raise the tone of the campaign, pressure the government and burn all the available paths available to us in a democracy, including a possible referendum,” Garnier said.
Recuperemos supporter Roxana Rojas, whose 17-year-old son Josué was murdered five months ago while being robbed of his cell phone, said she is offended the committee never called any victims to testify. Rojas has since formed a victim’s association to provide a support group for survivors and friends of homicide victims.
“The country is exhausted already,” she said. “But we’re going to use up all the peaceful channels available to try to get the government to tackle the problem of crime and impunity.”
Measures Still Breathing in crime Bill
• Create a protection program for witnesses, victims and others, to be known as the VPPA. • Allow anonymous testimony in criminal cases upon the petition of witnesses and their acceptance into the VPPA. Defense attorneys will be allowed to object and appeal the VPPA’s decisions. Summaries of anonymous testimony have to be provided to the defense. A conviction cannot be attained solely based on this type of evidence.
• Allow witnesses and victims to change their identities and be moved out of the country under the VPPA.
• Prohibit the government from claiming budgetary limitations in not complying with the legal provisions of the law. If an official makes such a claim, he is subject to criminal prosecution for “incumplimiento de deberes” or breach of duty.
• Restrict the use of settlements in criminal cases, not allowing them to be used for any crimes that are codified with potential prison time.
• Require judicial authorities to inform victims of all case developments, assuming they have provided correct contact information and victims are allowed access to case files.
• Modify slightly a 1998 law to allow police to interrogate suspects beyond requesting their identity and documentation. The bill states Judicial Investigation Police are now allowed to interrogate suspects within six hours of their arrest but only in the presence of a defense attorney.
• Expand use of technology, such as videoconferencing.
• Require judges to use preventive prison in cases that involve organized crime, violence, sex crimes, property and drug crimes or against repeat offenders.
• Create a 48-hour express justice system to try criminals caught by police in the act.