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One year on and Honduran Environmental Defenders still in jail without trial

The ‘Guapinol 8’ were detained on 1st September last year for peacefully protesting against the exploitation of their community’s natural resources by private business interests.

Two daughters of the imprisoned Guapinol human rights defenders, Liss Jireth Cedillo Zúniga (7) and her friend Cristhel Alejandra Romero Portillo, holding their drawings in front of the Public Ministry in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The sign in the background says Two daughters of the imprisoned Guapinol human rights defenders, Liss Jireth Cedillo Zúniga (7) and her friend Cristhel Alejandra Romero Portillo, holding their drawings in front of the Public Ministry in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The sign in the background says "Guapinol is resisting". Photo: Giulia Vuillermoz

Early in 2018, the crystalline Guapinol River that runs through Carlos Escaleras Mejia National Park, in northern Honduras, turned into a river of mud. The muddied waters could be traced to the activities of a mining company, ‘Inversión Los Pinares.’

Unknown to the communities of Guapinol, the company had been granted a licence by the government to operate in the park despite the fact that the area was protected by law.

In August 2018, the people of Guapinol began to organise protests to stop the mining company’s activities. They wanted proper consultation and to protect their river – a vital source of freshwater for the community.

People from the surrounding communities quickly came to show their support. At one of the protests, private security guards employed by the company fired at the demonstrators. One bullet hit a young man in the back and punctured his lung. He was taken to hospital for emergency surgery.

On 27 October 2018, some 1,500 police and army officials descended on the community of Guapinol to stop the protests. Soon after the arrival of the police in October 2018, the public prosecutor issued warrants for the arrest of 31 members of the Guapinol community. They were charged with offences including damaging property, false imprisonment, theft, aggravated arson and unlawful association.

A first group of community members handed themselves in to clarify their legal position with respect to the case in February 2019. All charges were quickly dropped against them. A further eight of the accused also handed themselves in a few months later, but paradoxically, the judge issued a pre-trial detention order.

No evidence of the alleged crimes having taken place was presented, not to mention evidence of their involvement in those alleged crimes. Despite this fact, they were denied bail and even transferred to a maximum-security prison.

Since then, lawyers have managed to get them transferred to a prison closer to their homes, but bail continues to be denied and the community activists can expect to spend some two to three years in prison awaiting trial.

At the Guapinol river. Gabriela and Briana are daughters of two of the men that have been in jail since 28/08/19. Photo : Giulia Vuillermoz At the Guapinol river. Gabriela and Briana are daughters of two of the men that have been in jail since 28/08/19. Photo : Giulia Vuillermoz
In August 2018, the people of Guapinol began to organise protests to stop the mining company’s activities. They wanted proper consultation and to protect their river – a vital source of freshwater for the community.

Against this backdrop, land and environmental activists continue to fight against the mining company damaging the Guapinol river and continue to face harassment and threats.

All of the Guapinol detainees have been formally recognised in Honduran law, both individually and collectively, as human rights defenders. Since September 2019, the lawyers for the defence of these human rights defenders have worked tirelessly to have the men freed but despite submitting one appeal and attending three pre-trial detention review hearings, the men continue to be detained.

Two weeks ago the Appeals Court finally released its ruling on the men’s appeal, five months late, and the results are devastating. Not only did it uphold the pre-trial detention of the eight water defenders, it also ruled to reverse the decision that freed the previous group and actively re-opened the case against five of them for the same charges.

“The court’s decision reaffirms the clear alliance between the public prosecutor, the judiciary and the private sector, to punish all of those who dare to defend the natural resources of Honduras,” declared Edy Tábora, a lawyer on the legal defence team.

“This case is not only about Guapinol. The case is emblematic of all of those that fight for their rights against extractive projects in their territories.”

Some of the Guapinol human rights defenders pictured in court in Honduras. Some of the Guapinol human rights defenders pictured in court in Honduras.

RISK FROM COVID 19

At the end of April 2020, the National Congress of Honduras reformed the Code of Criminal Procedure with the aim to reduce the overcrowding in Honduran prisons in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Article 184 was amended to grant home detention to prisoners at risk of contracting the coronavirus. This also applies to people deprived of their liberty who have not been convicted such as the Guapinol defenders.

This reform gave the power to the judges to analyse or decide what type of measure should be applied. Despite a writ being filed with the President of the Supreme Court of Justice asking for these measures to be considered for the ‘Guapinol 8’, there was no success.

Trócaire has been raising awareness about the blatant violation of human rights with the international community. The case of the Guapinol human rights defenders has been taken up by many international parliamentarians and observers including a group of MEPs. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that “governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views”.

Trócaire – through it’s partner organisation Fundación San Alonso Rodríguez (FSAR) – has also been supporting the Guapinol community with advice and training on environmental rights as well as support with legal advice and defence fees. The Honduran courts and the government have colluded to protect the financial interests of the wealthy at the expense of ordinary people trying to protect their community’s future.

Solidarity and visibility from the international community have been among the strongest defences against this corruption and impunity and are needed now more than ever.

The ‘Guapinol 8’ have been locked away from their families for a year but Trócaire will continue to support them and their community until they are free and the rights of the community are recognised and protected.

The ‘Guapinol 8’ are :
Porfirio Sorto Cedillo, José Avelino Cedillo, Orbin Naún Hernández, Kevin Alejandro Romero, Arnold Javier Aleman, Ever Alexander Cedillo, Daniel Marquez and Jeremías Martínez Díaz.

To find out more about Trócaire’s call for a Global Treaty on Business & Human Rights click here

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