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Access to Justice

813 days in prison for protecting his community’s land in Guatemala

To mark this weekend’s Nelson Mandela Day, Trócaire remembers a person who fought to make a difference for his community and the many human rights leaders who have since emerged and emulated his devotion to the service of humanity.

Broadcaster John Creedon presents Guatemalan activist Abelino Chub Caal with Trócaire’s Romero International Award in Cork City.    Photo: Gerard McCarthy/Trócaire. Broadcaster John Creedon presents Guatemalan activist Abelino Chub Caal with Trócaire’s Romero International Award in Cork City. Photo: Gerard McCarthy/Trócaire.

Abelino Chub Caal is a Q’eqchi’ indigenous leader and one of many human rights defenders imprisoned for standing up and protecting the rights of his people in Guatemala. He was taken away from his family and community on false charges and deprived of his liberty for 813 days.

Abelino’s work is risky and dangerous and involves standing up to powerful vested political and corporate interests.  He is a member of the Guillermo Toriello Foundation and CUC (The Committee for Peasant Unity), which advocate for access to land and housing. These are very sensitive issues in Guatemala and Trócaire supports both of these organisations.  As a member of the Q’eqchi’ indigenous community, Abelino has campaigned against the land dispossession suffered by his community. The Q’eqchi’ community faces violence, repression, criminalisation and eviction from their land. Megaprojects continue to be imposed on community lands in violation of rights protected by the Guatemala Constitution which establishes respect for indigenous lands and the right to prior, free and informed consultations concerning the use of those lands.

Abelino acts as a mediator for these indigenous communities fighting for their land rights against landlords and mining companies. Human rights defenders in Guatemala are often subjected to death threats, harassment, stigmatisation, arbitrary detention, and even murder. Female human rights defenders are targeted with even more sinister measures, often related to the threat of sexual violence or violence against their families. The exceptionally high level of impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators increases the risk for defenders. The campaign against Abelino follows a well-established pattern of criminalisation of human rights defenders in Guatemala.

Abelino spent over two years behind bars falsely accused of arson and other crimes but was found innocent of all charges in April 2019. Later that year, he was awarded the Trócaire Romero Award for his defence of human rights. Sadly, the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office lodged an appeal against his acquittal, early in 2021. Keeping Abelino embroiled in a criminal process hampers his ability to carry out his work in defence of the indigenous Q’eqchi’ people. According to Abelino’s defence, “it is clear that this continues to be a case of criminalisation and a strategy for dispossession of Q’eqchi’ lands”. Thankfully, justice was delivered as the appeal against Abelino’s acquittal was rejected by the courts. Trócaire has provided the essential funding for Abelino’s legal defence, without which he wouldn’t have been able to defeat this attempt to reimprison him.

In Guatemala, 845 attacks and 14 murders were recorded against human right defenders like Abelino. Despite the ongoing harassment, intimidation and threats of re-arrest, Abelino remains undeterred to continue to struggle for his community.

Trócaire and its partners continue to fight for the protection of human rights

While the overall picture for protection of human rights is challenging in many countries,

every day Trócaire’s partners continue to courageously defend people’s human rights often at great personal risk. In the past year we continued to support partners to protect human rights through actions including documenting human rights violations, providing legal aid, taking strategic legal cases and providing psychosocial support to human rights defenders.

Partners in Guatemala led 51 cases that resulted in favourable sentences for human rights defenders and survivors of rights violations. 627 actions were also taken to safeguard human rights defenders (HRDs) and ensure protection services for 2,308 rights-holders and HRDs under threat in indigenous and campesino (peasant farmer) communities.

This weekend, we remember that Nelson Mandela urged all of us to take on the burden of leadership in addressing social and humanitarian injustice. We pay tribute to Mr. Mandela and those like Abelino Chub Caal who sacrificed their freedom and safety fighting to make human rights a reality for all.

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