Persecution and resistance: The experience of human rights defenders in Guatemala and Honduras

August 8, 2007

Persecution and resistance: The experience of human rights defenders in Guatemala and Honduras

In February 2005, all nine COCAHICH members were put under restriction orders (medidas sustitutivas), requiring them to present themselves to their local Magistrates (juzgado de paz) every 15 days for the duration of the investigation. Although the investigative phase should only have lasted six months according to Guatemalan law, the Public Prosecutor's Office did not formalize the charges until December 2005, and the investigation continued for over two years.

On 10 April 2007, three of the four charges against the nine COCAHICH members were formally dismissed by a Sentencing Tribunal (Tribunal de Sentencia Penal, Narcoactividad y Delitos contra al Ambiente del Departamento de Alta Verapaz). On 10 July 2007, the San Cristóbal Verapaz Magistrate's Court (Juzgado de Paz del Municipio de San Cristóbal Verapaz) decided not to pursue the remaining charge, and the case against the COCAHICH members was closed.

For over two years during the investigation against them, the nine members of the community were obliged to report every 15 days to their local magistrates. For some of the accused this was a two-day walk each way.
Amnesty International believes that the restriction orders placed on the nine members of the community were unnecessarily restrictive and intended to prevent and inhibit their human rights work on behalf of the communities affected by the Chixoy dam.

Case studies

This chapter highlights cases of human rights violations, including killings and attacks, threats and intimidation, against human rights defenders in Guatemala and Honduras. These experiences reflect those of many defenders in these countries and indeed in other countries in the region. In many cases those believed to be implicated are members of the security forces. In other cases, private actors that may be linked to financial interests are often believed to be involved.

Human rights defenders in Central America face a series of obstacles to their work. In some cases, grave violations of human rights result in defenders having to stop or radically curtail their human rights activities. Direct attacks or threats to their lives sometimes mean that human rights defenders are forced to flee their homes or even countries. However, these violations also have wider repercussions by creating a climate
of fear where other human rights defenders are only too aware how easily they too could become the targets of direct attack.

Amnesty International has documented harassment through a range of means including surveillance. It has received large numbers of reports of raids and break-ins at the offices of human rights organizations or at the homes of human rights defenders. During these raids, crucial human rights information related to their work has been seized. The raids show a similar pattern: valuable items are often left untouched and computer data is copied and files removed. Investigations into the theft of human rights information have produced virtually no tangible results.

The legal system is sometimes misused in order to harass and intimidate human rights defenders. This also has the result of stigmatizing the individuals and organizations in question and generating a negative perception of their work. Criminal proceedings that are initiated with unsubstantiated evidence or judicial proceedings that remain unresolved for extended periods of time also curtail their ability to carry out their legitimate work. This is especially true of human rights defenders working in small grass-roots organizations at the local level.

In its 2006 report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights drew attention to those groups of defenders which it termed "especially exposed". Among those identified as at particular risk were campesino and community leaders. It stated that it had received "many complaints that indicate that many leaders have been targeted by threats and attacks because of their work to protect economic and social rights."(15)