Milagro Sala’s arrestamnistia in the province of Jujuy puts again on the public agenda the issue of the need to understand and think of responses to social protests. The case is quite interesting. Milagro Sala is a social leader and a referent of the Tupac Amaru Neighborhood Organization, a political group with indigenous roots founded in the 1990s in the Province of Jujuy. Milagro Sala is a social leader who was responsible for managing, among other things, housing, health, employment and education-related programs funded at the national and provincial levels during the Kirchner administration. The management was made through local cooperatives organized by locals.

When the new governor of the province, Gerardo Morales, took office, a cooperative re-enrolment plan was implemented. This situation would affect the programs until then managed by the organizations and cooperatives coordinated by Tupac Amaru. Within this context the organization triggered a mobilization and subsequent setting of a protest camp at Plaza Belgrano, in front of the provincial government house. This ended up with the filing of a criminal complaint and the later imprisonment of the social leader.

These facts are relevant to understand the actions undertaken by Amnesty International. Soon Milagro Sala’s arrest became a public issue of interest. In our country there have been numerous social leaders who were victims of the use of criminal instruments as a method to silence them. However, in the case of Milagro Sala, the issue is distinctive because she is a social leader who has accumulated a significant amount of power in her province over these years, is very much attached to the outgoing government and above all she is considered a very controversial leader. Restricting the analysis exclusively to a political framework would be incorrect. The issue, if posed in these terms, brings about a confusing and intentional discussion: what in fact is not being debated is precisely if the legal instruments and arguments used to imprison Milagro Sala are reasonable.

The arrest warrant, that Amnesty International had access to, shows that she is charged with organizing a protest (interpreted as blocking the circulation, a crime which she would have been the instigator) and with sedition, this latter crime being unconstitutional, basically because if applied, it would impede any type of social manifestation or claim. The arrest warrant does not describe clearly and accurately the facts she is accused of. From a strictly human rights perspective, the grounds for her detention are, to put it clearly, the exercise of her right to protest. In this way, the decision of the government to use criminal law (to detain her) on the one hand silenced her (in violation of the right of freedom of expression) and on the other hand, obstructed and dissipated protest (in violation of the right to petition authorities and right of assembly).

Social protests or mobilizations are manifestations of the exercise of the freedom of expression and right of assembly, all of them written into the National Constitution as well as included in international human rights treaties. Many times diverse social sectors find public demonstrations as the only way to have their opinions be heard and known.

The exercise of these rights imposes on the State the duty to ensure (and not to criminalize) social protest. If a protest is restricted based on its contents or motivations what happens is that certain opinions will arbitrarily be privileged over other opinions. The State as such and in that capacity cannot favor the expression of a certain opinion or idea and obstruct others on the basis of their critical nature or arising from differences in ideas or positions. Quite contrary, it is the duty of the State to ensure that all points of views — even those not favored by the State — be disseminated in conditions of equality, and even more so when they center on public issues. Respecting the freedom to protest and to have public demonstrations, just like the freedom to criticize or to oppose a government, is part of the free circulation of ideas and information. It is not correct to understand the freedom of assembly and demonstration as a synonym of public disorder, with the aim of restricting it, as was the case here.

When Amnesty International becomes aware that one or more persons are in a situation of risk because their fundamental human rights are being violated, it triggers a network made up of tens of thousands of persons worldwide who show their solidarity and join in to exert pressure by mobilizing as fast as possible with the aim of reversing this situation. Amnesty International does this every day in different parts of the world. We did that last year in Venezuela, defending Leopoldo López, when he was sentenced to prison under charges of conspiracy, incitement to commit a crime, arson and damages to public property during a mobilization. Likewise, we started urgent actions in favor of indigenous leaders such as Félix Días or Relmu Ñamku, who in exercising their right to express peacefully were criminally prosecuted. Some 10 days ago we did the same in favor of 61 persons deprived of their freedoms at the Barker jail, questioning the detention conditions and denouncing mistreatment. All these actions result in international visibility.

Our intervention may not have been seen as sympathetic from a political point of view. However, political equations is exactly what we refrain from doing. From the human rights point of view, Milagro Sala should be released.

Mariela Belski is the Executive Director of Amnesty International Argentina. She has a Master in Human Rights from the University of Essex in the United Kingdom.