LIMA (Reuters) - Peru threatened to arrest pregnant women who marched on Tuesday against a $4.8 billion gold mine, prompting critics to ridicule the government over its latest heavy-handed tactic to quash anti-mining protests.
Ana Jara, Peru's minister of women and vulnerable populations, said pregnant protesters would be putting their unborn babies at risk by going to a rally against the mine U.S.-based Newmont plans to build in the northern region of Cajamarca. She accused organizers of using pregnant women as shields to prevent police from breaking up protests now stretching into their 20th day.
In spite Jara's warning, dozens of expecting mothers marched in the northern region of Cajamarca on Tuesday, joining other protesters who say the mine would hurt water supplies and cause pollution.
President Ollanta Humala, a former military officer, took office in July urging mediation to calm hundreds of disputes nationwide over the spoils of natural resources that could delay billions in investments. But he has rankled lawmakers who say he has become impatient with intransigent protesters and too willing to rely on a firm hand to maintain order.
"The participation of pregnant women in public protests is intolerable and cannot be justified ... this puts the body and the health of the fetus at risk," Jara said on RPP radio.
She said the penal code carries a sanction of three years in prison for people who mistreat an unborn baby. Peru, like many primarily Catholic Latin American countries, has strict laws against abortion in most cases.
"We aren't going to sit here and do nothing ... we have coordinated with the attorney general's office to guarantee the integrity of the babies," she said.
The company has said it was willing to improve its environmental mitigation plan for the mine, which Humala says would generate thousands of jobs and enormous tax revenues in one of the world's top metals exporters.
Work on the mine has been stalled since November, but the company is expected to announce plans to move ahead with the project sometime this month.
The government has tried to isolate the protesters as far-left "extremists." Jara was teased over her comments by many who sympathized with the women's right to march.
"Minister Jara: If I'm ovulating and participate in a march, would I also be committing a crime by putting a possible conception at risk?" tweeted Maritza Espinoza, a journalist who tweets as @mareshu.
Others quickly sent around a link to a video showing Humala's wife, Nadine Heredia, speaking at a political rally for her husband while six-months pregnant.
"It's a crime!" journalist Gerardo Cardenas, who tweets as @Gerardo_M, said today of Heredia's 2010 speech.
Some critics said that, according to Jara's logic, pregnant women should be prohibited from walking on the street because they might get hit by a car and hurt their fetus.
Humala's government has struggled to calm some 250 disputes over natural resources in Peru and at times has suspended freedom of assembly in a bid to end anti-mining protests. His approval rating fell to 45 percent this month, below 50 percent for the first time ever as he tries to manage the disputes.
Police last month arrested a provincial mayor for leading a protest against global miner Xstrata in the southern region of Cusco. The mayor was jailed for several days before the judiciary ordered he be freed, saying he had been wrongfully imprisoned. Justice Minister Juan Jimenez criticized his release.
At least 10 people have died in disputes over natural resources since Humala took office in July. At least 174 people died in similar protests during the government of his predecessor, Alan Garcia.
Reporting By Terry Wade; Editing by Marguerita Choy