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Constitutional amendment sparks concern about democratic institutions in the Dominican Republic

Peaceful Assembly

Protests against constitutional amendment allowing presidential re-election

A proposed constitutional amendment that would allow President Danilo Medina to run for a third term sparked protests in the Dominican Republic in June and July 2019. Medina’s re-election in 2016 was made possible by another amendment pushed by his supporters, as previously the country’s constitution did not allow successive presidential terms.

On 24th June 2019 the police clashed with demonstrators and legislators who were setting up a tent in front of the National Congress building in Santo Domingo, with the aim of organising a vigil to protest against the amendment. The anti-riot police used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators, and at least eight people were reportedly injured. Congressman Henry Merán fainted from the gas and was taken to a clinic for treatment.

On 25th June 2019, news outlets reported heavy anti-riot police and military presence in the Congress’ neighbourhood after the announcement of further protests. On 26th June 2019, hundreds of people took to the streets in Santo Domingo. The demonstration was supported by a sector of the governing party Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (PLD) that opposed the proposed amendment. Despite heavy policing, the demonstration remained peaceful.

Demonstrations continued in the following weeks. On 12th July 2019, opposition parties and civil society organisations organised new protests under the banner “No al Continuismo” (No to Continuism). Finally, on 23rd July 2019, President Danilo Medina announced that he would not go forward with the constitutional reform.

Strike in El Seibo province ends in violence

On 18th September 2019, a demonstration in the province of El Seibo ended in violence and police repression, leaving twelve people injured. The demonstration was part of a two-day strike convoked by Movimiento Unidos por un Seibo Mejor (United Movement for a Better Seibo), a local initiative coordinated by priest Miguel Ángel Gullón which makes demands related to health, education and incomplete construction and repair works. According to reports, the demonstration began peacefully but turned violent when a group of protesters blocked passage through a freeway. The police used tear gas to end the blockade, and at least four people were injured with pellets. An ambulance carrying injured protesters was stoned by unidentified people on the way to the hospital. Five young protesters were detained and released on the same day, when the strike was called off.

Expression

On 30th July 2019, the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court (TC) declared unconstitutional article 284 of the new electoral regime legislation Act 15-19 (Electoral System Organic Law) which established sentences of 3 to 10 years for those sharing false or denigrating campaigns, or defamatory propaganda, against candidates. The legal challenge was filed in March 2019 by Fundación Prensa y Derecho (Press and Law Foundation), whose experts considered that this amounted to a draconian honour law, creating an environment of intimidation that would inhibit the publication of any material denouncing corruption or other scandals involving politicians and political parties. According to the foundation, such a provision would unreasonably and disproportionately limit freedom of expression and dissemination of information.

This is the second time in 2019 that direct action from the Foundation has led to the annulment of a legislative provision violating freedom of expression. In May 2019, the Constitutional Court also declared unconstitutional an article of the Political Parties, Groups and Movements Act (Act 33-18) penalising “negative messages” made against candidates on social networks.