Honduras – An international mission confirms lack of protection and criminalisation of rights defenders

Press release
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Paris-Geneva, 23 May 2016. The criminalisation and subsequent murder of Berta Cáceres, as well as the criminalisation cases of the Santiago Apóstol Council of Indigenous Lenca people in Santa Elena and the Unified Peasant Movement of Aguán (MUCA) in Lower Aguán, exemplify what happens when human rights defenders take on energy megaprojects, agro fuels, or mining production. According to the mission of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT), these defenders are subject to attacks, defamation, and criminal prosecutions that seek to punish them and to hinder their work in defending their territories and human rights.

Given the seriousness of the attacks, and the systematic manner in which they are waged against human rights defenders in Honduras, the Observatory carried out a second international mission in Honduras (Tegucigalpa, La Esperanza and Lower Aguán) from 4 to 13 May as a follow up to its first mission in April [1] . This second mission was to express our solidarity in the field, and convey to the authorities our concerns regarding the continued persecution and criminalisation of human rights defenders who stand up for the rights of their communities in the face of large investments.

The case of Berta Cáceres Flores – an emblematic figure in the defence of human and land rights, and co-founder and coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) – is a prime example of the criminalisation and the high levels of risk and vulnerability that those who defend human rights in Honduras face, particularly those working on land-related issues. Before her assassination in March 2016, Berta Cáceres had been the victim of a criminal prosecution in 2013 [2] , with an arrest warrant having been issued against her. Additionally, she had filed 33 complaints of having received death threats.

The initial hearing of four alleged perpetrators of her assassination took place on 6 May in Tegucigalpa. One is an active employee of DESA L.L.C., the company responsible for the Agua Zarca project, while another is a Major in the Honduran army. Although these arrests are a sign of progress in a country with high incidences of impunity, we reject the criminal secrecy declared to prevent the lawyers and family of Berta Cáceres from gaining access to the investigation led by the Public Prosecution. Similarly, we support the family of Berta Cáceres in their request for the State of Honduras to accept a Commission of Inquiry by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) to assist the work of the Honduran justice system in investigating, judging, and sanctioning the masterminds behind her murder.

In addition to the Berta Cáceres case, our mission verified other cases of prosecution and criminalisation against leaders of peasant and indigenous communities in other regions of the country that occurred in the context of defending their territories. Specifically, the mission focused on the criminalisation cases of 19 members of the Santiago Apóstol Council of Indigenous Lenca people in Santa Elena accused of usurping lands, and of 25 members of the Unified Peasant Movement of Aguán (MUCA) in Lower Aguán, since 2014. The mission found that these defenders were presented as criminals in order to hinder their work, to eliminate their community support, and to punish them for their leadership positions, all within an environment marked by murders and threats.

Public recognition of the work of human rights defenders, as well as the strengthening of justice and the fight against impunity, are fundamental for overriding the criminalisation of these defenders and for strengthening the rule of law in Honduras.

In the case of Lower Aguán, the Observatory noted that criminal investigations for serious crimes - such as the massacre of five peasants on the el Tumbador farm on 15 November 2010 in which guards employed by the DINANT L.L.C., firm were involved - were not advancing. Furthermore, those who protested for the defence of their rights continued to be criminalised, such as the members of MUCA who were prosecuted before the Supreme Court of Justice for illegal protests, which led to the unlawful cancellation of the ruling that recognised the right to their land.

The mission found the criminalisation of human rights defenders to be associated with a structural problem of land access that tends to worsen insofar as the Honduran State continues to encourage concentration, extraction, and agro-industry activities.

In another act of criminalisation of land defenders, on 18 May 2016 the magistrates’ court of Ampala ordered the detention of Mr. Abel Pérez and Mr. Santos Hernández, members of the Association for the Development of the Zacate Grande Peninsula (ADEPZA). They have been accused of usurping land, making threats, and causing damage in relation to proceedings initiated by ADEPZA to recover the Zacate Grande beaches in the Ampala municipality in the Valle department. The Observatory, which visited ADEPZA during its mission in April, is requesting that authorities provide all the guarantees of due process to Mr. Pérez and Mr. Hernández.

The Mission included Luis Guillermo Pérez Casas - FIDH Representative to the OAS and member of the CAJAR in Colombia; Magdalena Garcés - a human rights lawyer in Chile; and Natalia Yaya - the Programme Officer of the FIDH Bureau for the Americas. The mission was carried out in collaboration with FIDH member organisations in the country, namely The Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) and the Centre for Research and Promotion of Human Rights (CIPRODEH), and with the support of the Honduran Centre for the Protection of Community Development (CEHPRODEC).

In the coming months, the Observatory will publish a report of the findings and specific recommendations on the situation of human rights defenders in Honduras, including conclusions on this issue.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a programme created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT,) and is aimed at participating in the prevention and remediation of specific situations of oppression against male and female human rights defenders.

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