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Dominican students seek justice for fatal police shooting

William “Willy” Florián Ramírez was a bright, young medical student with plans to become a cardiologist — until the police shot him in the heart.

Unarmed, Florián was shot to death on a Santo Domingo street just north of the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo campus on Nov. 8 after police broke up a student protest with gunfire.

The killing has become a flashpoint in a simmering dispute between the government and Dominican social movements, including student organizations, that are protesting a plan to raise taxes and fees to cover a budget deficit. Days of protests have left the country split between the need to raise revenue and claims that the previous administration squandered funds on public works projects and through corruption.

On Nov. 13, former President Leonel Fernandez, who served for three terms and left office this year with a $4 billion deficit, suggested that low taxes were to blame in a nationally televised primetime speech.

With the tax increases “by 2013, we can recover the shortfall and continue moving along paths of prosperity and social development,” Fernandez said.

President Danilo Medina, a member of Fernandez’s party, has agreed to raise the sales tax to 18 percent from 16 percent and to introduce new or increased fees. The changes take effect Jan. 1.

In addition to the tax hikes, students said the university, an autonomous body that receives government funds, plans to privatize at least part of the education.

Julián Sosa, a university spokesman, said external groups have proposed privatization but the rector has rejected any such plan. “We believe in the right to public education it’s guaranteed in our constitution,” he said.

However, he said the university receives less than half of the government funds it is due by law.

“We’re operating with a permanent deficit,” he said. “But we have managed to modernize the university.”

The university dates to 1538, when it was called Universidad Santo Tomás de Aquino, making it the oldest in the Americas. Today, the system educates some 200,000 students in campuses across the country.

Other public university systems in Latin America have moved to privatize and been met with massive demonstrations. In August, tens of thousands of Chilean protestors clashed with police amid demonstrations calling for education reform in the South American country. And in Haiti, the country has been rocked by almost a week of violent clashes between student protesters and police after the Nov. 10 killing of a university student by a prison guard.

Dominican students currently pay a small fee to register for classes — around $12.50 — and a nominal amount for classes, as little as $5 for a semester, depending on the course load.

Hundreds of students joined the Nov. 8 protest, which promptly drew the attention of police. “They arrived and just started shooting without saying anything,” said José Manuel Peña, a 20-year-old industrial engineering student who was at the protest. “We all went running for the exits.”

A video surfaced showing officers shooting at students, who had thrown rocks at officers. It was unclear if any of the students were armed, but gunshots are heard in the video, including several pump-action shotgun shots. Authorities have said Florián was not armed. University officials condemned the killing, Sosa said.

Peña and some 10 other students ran to help Florían after he was shot, “but the police kept shooting” from across the street. By the time they got to him, he was covered in blood, shot twice in the chest with one bullet cutting through his aortic arch. He was dead within five minutes, friends said.

Police at the request of Medina opened an investigation into the shooting. On Monday, a police commission recommended that five officers be removed from the force for their involvement.

Meanwhile, Florián’s friends have set up a small memorial on campus. “He was the kind of person who would help you with anything, you didn’t have to ask him,” said Britney Muñoz, a 23-year-old medical student who had known Florián for four years. “He wasn’t even protesting that day,” she said.