Milagro Sala, a prominent social leader in Jujuy province, was detained on January 16 for participating in peaceful street protests in the center of San Salvador de Jujuy, the provincial capital. Sala and other demonstrators had gathered to protest against a decree issued by the provincial governor that purports to regulate organizations like Sala’s that execute government-funded housing and other welfare programs. Protesters called on the provincial government to maintain thousands of jobs that had been created by Sala’s organization and others during the previous administration, among other asks. Now Sala’s sitting in pretrial detention and facing charges for these actions that could bring up to 10 years in prison.

Milagro Sala in the “Forum for a New Independence, National and Latin American” in San Miguel de Tucumán, July 6, 2015. Picture by: Romina Santarelli/Ministry of Culture of the Nation

Sala was charged by a prosecutor in Jujuy with “instigation to commit crimes” and sedition, an offense that typically entails incitement to violent insurrection against state authority but the Argentine criminal code broadly defines as “publicly rising to stop the execution of national or provincial laws or resolutions of national or public officials.”

According to court documents, Sala is accused of “gesturing and exhorting” others to “camp” and “obstruct” transit, causing “an alteration of public order,” and of “generating with her actions collective alarm in the population.” The prosecution does not allege that there was any violence during the protests. 

Separately from all of this, Sala is also under criminal investigation in other cases for allegedly threatening public officials. And since her arrest, the provincial governor and others have accused her of corruption in government-funded social programs that her organization, a powerful local group called Tupac Amaru, has operated.

Credible allegations that Sala or anyone else has committed crimes must be adequately investigated. But charging someone with sedition simply for taking part in a peaceful (even if possibly illegal) public protest is indicative of a prosecution that curtails free expression. None of the allegations against Sala, even if true, add up to “sedition” under any legitimate definition of the crime.

Crimes like sedition pose a threat to basic rights because if framed or interpreted broadly, they can provide governments with a tool to criminalize protected free speech or to disproportionately punish critics of the government for minor infractions. The Inter-American Legal Framework Regarding the Right to Freedom of Expression has explicitly acknowledged that “vague, ambiguous, broad or open-ended laws, by their mere existence, discourage the dissemination of information and opinions out of fear of punishment, and can lead to broad judicial interpretations that unduly restrict freedom of expression.”

President Mauricio Macri has said Sala’s prosecution is in the hands of independent provincial courts and that his government will respect free speech. But the federal government could do more than that – it should seek to amend and narrow the sedition provision in the criminal code to ensure that it cannot be used to undercut free speech or unjustly punish government critics.