HONDURAS: Intimidation and Assaults on participants in the “Berta Caceres Vive” International Gathering must be investigated

Press release
en es

Geneva-Paris-Guatemala, 18 April 2016. On Friday, 15 April, approximately ten participants in the “Berta Caceres Vive” Peoples International Gathering procession were injured in an assault by over 30 individuals identified as male and female workers of the mining company Desarrollos Energéticos, SA (DESA). The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OMCT-FIDH) and the International Platform against Impunity reported today that three members of an Observatory fact-finding mission witnessed first-hand the earliest incidents and the poor police response. The serious incidents took place when several hundred individuals walked towards the Gualcarque River in the suburbs of San Francisco de Ojuera to commemorate the life of Berta Caceres, human rights defender and leader of the Lenca indigenous community, as part of the “Berta Caceres Vive” (Berta Caceres Lives) International Event. Ms. Caceres was assassinated on 2 March.

At 10:30, three members of the Observatory mission reached the area where the buses were scheduled to arrive, close to the N.20 highway turn-off. During the hour they remained in the area, they saw at least five radio police patrols (each made up of four or five units), and two vehicles carrying some 10 soldiers each, cross the area and head for San Francisco de Ojuera.

Once the first buses had arrived, the members of the Observatory mission followed the convoy and noted large numbers of national police and military units all along the route. According to the Observatory delegation, the presence of these forces was perceived as intimidating by those taking part in the procession, especially as at least one of the groups of policemen was taking photographs of the cars and buses. Additionally, most of the units were carrying arms and shields, and looked ready to intervene in the procession. Further, the people travelling in the buses reported feeling intimidated by the acts of the security forces along the route from Tegucigalpa, which included many stops, searches of the buses and the passengers, as well as a considerable slowing down of the vehicles’ progress.

At 13:10, having reached the San Francisco de Ojuera suburbs, the first group of participants in the procession, along with the Observatory mission officials, continued their journey on foot. They were confronted by over 30 threatening individuals waving signs against the demonstrators and brandishing machetes. They also shouted threats at demonstrators and, specifically at Tomas Gomez, the new Coordinator of the Civic Council of Peoples’ and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH). These individuals were identified by members of the COPINH as employees of the DESA company.

The Observatory delegation was able to document that, while in the vicinity of the Santa Fe police station and on other parts of the route, security forces were present in large numbers. However, only six policemen were deployed to keep the counter-demonstrators from the international procession.

“The weak police presence to confront the danger of having a large group of people armed with machetes and clearly spoiling for a fight was in stark contrast to the intimidation generated by the huge deployment [of police] visited on the peaceful demonstrators in the convoy all along the route. Police intervention, by any yardstick, seemed disproportionate and ran counter to international standards which uphold the right to demonstrate peacefully”

stated Martin Zumalacarregui, Director of the Brussels Office of the OMCT, in charge of the Observatory mission.

According to the information received by our organisation, around 17:00, by which time the Observatory delegation had left, around ten persons were injured as they were leaving the event; they were attacked with sticks and stones by the same group of individuals, some of whom were clearly inebriated. By that time, the security forces were present in the area in larger numbers and better prepared for any clashes than they had been during the incidents recorded in the morning. Despite this, according to witnesses the assaults took place in full sight of the ten or so members of the security forces, who did not react until participants in the procession insisted that they do so.

In addition, the assailants again made direct threats against Mr. Gomez and Sotero Chavarria, a member of the General Coordination of the COPINH. In fact, Mr. Chavarria was I hit by a stone. Amongst the insults shouted by the assailants, references to Ms. Caceres’ assassination were heard, and the following words were uttered: “we have killed the bug and only the rabble are left”.

“Our organisation call for an immediate, impartial, and comprehensive investigation into the assaults and threats made by the assailants, and also into the disproportionate police deployment, with a view to handing down sanctions commensurate to the poor performance of the security forces”

Karim Lahidji, FIDH President, stated.

These serious incidents took place in a growing climate of national and international dissatisfaction with the way the investigation of Ms. Caceres’ assassination is being conducted, as well as the inadequate response to the demands of Ms. Caceres’ family and the COPINH to urgently set up an inter-disciplinary group of independent experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) to investigate the crime.

“Our organisations underscore the importance of conducting a completely independent, impartial, and transparent investigation into the assassination of Berta Caceres and of involving the CIDH. Similarly, with a view to guaranteeing that this will not happen again, we urge the Honduran authorities to take all necessary steps to guarantee the physical and psychological integrity of Tomas Gomez, Sotero Chavarria, and the other members of the COPINH”

, stated Anabella Sibrian, Central American representative of the International Platform against Impunity and member of the Observatory mission.
Read more