Monday, August 20, 2007

American anarchist faces charges in Spain

McLEAN, Virginia - Peter Gelderloos would admit he is not your typical American tourist. While other Americans in Barcelona might be hopping between tapas bars, he was hanging out at a squatters' rights protest, lending support to the protesters.

But police in Barcelona say he was more than an innocent bystander. They charged him with public disorder and illegal demonstration for what they characterize as an instigating role in the April protest that got out of control. He could face up to six years in prison if convicted, an unusually stiff penalty because of the protest's conclusion _ the explosion of a massive firecracker.

Gelderloos, 25, of Vienna, Virginia, says the charges are ridiculous. He says he barely knew the protesters and could not have been involved in organizing or leading them. He believes that his political beliefs _ he is an anarchist who sometimes dresses the part _ caused police to treat him suspiciously.

''The cop was sure I was a terrorist because he was sure I was a squatter, and he was sure I was a squatter because he thought I looked like one (I was wearing a political t-shirt and had some slogans scribbled on my shoes),'' Gelderloos wrote in an account of his arrest that has been posted on Web sites dedicated to radical political causes.

Gelderloos is free on bond awaiting trial, but the terms of his release essentially bar him from coming back to the United States since he is required to check in at the Barcelona courthouse every two weeks. His lawyer has advised him that it may be two years or more before his case goes to trial.

Spanish police say Gelderloos was one of the leaders in a group of several dozen squatters protesting the city's gentrification. They were holding a procession on Las Ramblas, a main pedestrian drag in Barcelona.

The protesters were pushing a shopping cart rigged to look like it had a cannon sticking out of it, said a Spanish police official in Barcelona who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with police policy there.

At one point, Gelderloos and several other protesters started to scream ''We have a bomb, we have a bomb'' and then the firecracker exploded, the police official said. The official said Gelderloos was among those who set off the firecracker.

''People who did not know it was a joke could have had panic attacks,'' the official said.

Gelderloos offered a different account of the April 23 arrest: He said he had arrived in Spain at the end of March, alone and unable to speak Spanish. While he was interested in learning about Europe's radical social movements, he was traveling on a tourist visa and was, from a practical and legal standpoint, a tourist.

''Even anarchists take vacations,'' he wrote.

In an e-mail interview, Gelderloos said he had met some of the participants prior to the protest.

''Naturally I was interested in it, but I had not helped organize it and when the (firecracker) went off I was leaving to meet another friend,'' he said. ''The contention that I got intimately involved with criminal elements or whomever in this timeframe is fairly absurd.''

When police broke up the protest, Gelderloos said he did what he would normally do in the U.S.: follow and monitor the police to document any abuse or see if those arrested need assistance. It was then that he says a police officer asked him a question. Gelderloos responded by saying he did not understand Spanish very well and showing the officer his passport.

The officer took the passport and walked to the police station, with Gelderloos following. It was only then, Gelderloos said, that he learned he was under arrest.

Gelderloos' father, Duane Gelderloos, said he is worried that his son will not get a fair hearing, in part because of anti-American sentiment across the world. He noted a comment that a judge made to Gelderloos at an initial court appearance. According to Peter Gelderloos, the judge said during the hearing that the U.S. would put him in Guantanamo for what he had done.

''It's so obvious he's being framed on this thing,'' the father said. ''I think it has to be a factor _ this sense that 'America's having this war on terror, here's back at you.'''

Gelderloos' supporters in the U.S. organized a series of phone-call protests to the Spanish Embassy in Washington in late June, said Tariq Khan, a friend and fellow anti-war activist in northern Virginia.

Gelderloos acknowledged that his political beliefs are unorthodox. In 2002 he was sentenced to six months in prison for trespassing at a Georgia military base as part of a protest against the U.S. military's training of Latin American soldiers. He has been active in a variety of radical groups, including Copwatch, Anarchist Black Cross and Food Not Bombs.

Even within the anarchist community his ideas are controversial. He wrote a recently published book, ''How Nonviolence Protects the State,'' that questions the effectiveness of nonviolent social resistance. While he has written favorably of violent resistance, he said that doesn't mean he acted violently in Barcelona.

''I don't see what these ideas have to do with my guilt or innocence. I'm not accused of injuring anyone,'' Gelderloos said. ''It seems to me that the basic protections our system pretends to grant consistently do not apply to people whose beliefs are not within the permitted range and I hope that is not the case here.''

Peter Gelderloos said he believes his arrest highlights a broader issue of aggressive police tactics in Spain, where he says police have only reformed minimally since the days of the repressive Franco regime.

A 2005 report from the European Commissioner on Human Rights cited problems including a failure to inform foreign prisoners of their rights and frequent violations of speedy-trial rights.

The U.S. Consulate in Barcelona declined to comment on the case, citing privacy rules.

[Copyright AP with Expatica]

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