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808 days of wrongful imprisonment

18 April 2019

Demonstration to free indigenous and human rights defender Abelino Chub Caal in Guatemala

On Easter Monday, after 808 days of unjustified incarceration, Abelino Chub Caal will finally stand trial in Guatemala falsely accused of aggravated land occupation and criminal conspiracy.

A human rights defender and activist, who works in defence of indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ community land rights, Abelino has been arbitrarily imprisoned for over two years with numerous legal irregularities leading to his sustained detention.

The issue of land rights in Guatemala stems from its 36-year internal conflict. Indigenous communities regularly face the prospect of violent forced evictions from their ancestral homelands due to land grabs by big agribusinesses and large multi-national corporations.

Jailed for defending indigenous communities

A Trócaire delegation visited Abelino just a few weeks after the second anniversary of his arrest on February 4th last. On this rare opportunity to speak to Irish media, his first thoughts turned to the murder and harassment of his fellow activists.

“I especially want to highlight the dispossession of land happening all over this country,” said Abelino. “When I was first detained by the police, they told me I was being detained because I am an indigenous leader, and many who speak up for indigenous rights here have been treated the same way.

“It is clear that my case is a criminalisation of the struggle for land rights. We have been humiliated by companies and by the powerful.

“I have been detained, but there have been worse cases for men and women who have raised their voices regarding the situation. Some have been disappeared and killed.”

A university-educated bilingual teacher, 34-year-old Abelino has worked to defend human rights with the Trocaire supported organisations Guillermo Toriello Foundation (FGT) and the Committee for Peasant Unity (CUC).

Working with FGT to help communities defend their land rights in the Polochic Valley, Abelino acted as an intermediary for the community of of Plan Grande in talks with the government. His fluency in Spanish is key as many Mayans do not speak the language of government.

“I have pushed for high-level dialogue to solve the situation and in these spaces I highlight the problems,” explained Abelino.

A wrongful arrest and detention without trial

Arrested on February 4, 2017, the complaint lodged by the agribusiness that lay claim to the land alleges that Abelino led the community of Plan Grande in an effort to burn African palm trees. The charges have allowed authorities to mandate preventative detention, which has facilitated his incarceration since then.

In reality, Abelino was attending a workshop a long distance away.

It appears Abelino’s detention is part of a wider campaign to target human-rights defenders, who refuse offers of bribery to halt their defence of indigenous communities.

“Many [defenders] have been arrested and detained, but none have been sentenced,” said Abelino. “We will not accept [being treated as] a tool of the companies – that’s why I’m being detained.

“My detention is to delegitimise and slander my struggle because I’m [working] in solidarity with the communities. This is something I learned when I started to work in 2007…

“The big company in my region tried to bribe people. The banana company offered me money to help them expel a community that was allegedly ‘invading’ land. Of course I rejected it.”

Showing respect for all

In the Guatemalan City jail where he is imprisoned, Abelino is held alongside a diverse range of inmates, ranging from gang members to corrupt officials and politicians. Entering the prison, the Trócaire delegation were informed that a gang murder had been committed earlier in the day.

Abelino, however shows both his fellow prisoners and prison guards respect.

“I don’t receive any [different] treatment because I’m a human rights defender,” said Abelino. “They [prison guards] don’t even know I’m a community leader. I treat them with respect and I don’t look for trouble.

With hopes that the imminent trial will finally lead to his freedom, Abelino maintains that he will continue to stand for his community in the future.

“I have learned from the community you cannot sell dignity. Dignity is sacred and valued, not only for us [people] but you also cannot sell the dignity of the land.

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