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In Face of Pandemic, Detained Human Rights Defenders Must Be Immediately Released

As confirmed cases of COVID-19 increase in Honduras, the country’s judiciary must act now to end the illegal detention of Guapinol Water Defenders

By UUSC Staff on March 26, 2020

Versión en español

For the past six months, the Honduran government has detained seven environmental activists for speaking out against mining and iron-pelleting projects threatening their community’s water supply. The activists’ imprisonment pending trial has been deemed arbitrary by international experts, making it a violation of human rights law. Ever since their arrest, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) has joined with Honduran allies to call for their release, and an end to the government’s campaign of repression and criminalization against environmental activists. The immediate release of these water defenders is now absolutely urgent, as the spread of the coronavirus heightens the risk for everyone held in prisons and jails. 

The Honduran Supreme Court must immediately act to hear the case of the water defenders currently imprisoned, and release them from their unjust detention. The lower court ruling confining the men to jail was arbitrary and without merit. The lower court judge has already found that there is no evidence linking the community group to which the men belong to any criminal activity. There is no reason for them to be in jail.  

UUSC and our partners and allies continue our ongoing call for the release of the defenders from jail and the dismissal of all remaining charges against them. Protecting the source of a community’s water and livelihood is not a crime; it is an act of courage. The Supreme Court must act to ensure this illegal detention immediately ends. We call on authorities to stop campaigns to repress and stigmatize peaceful human rights defenders.

Background to the case

Last October, family members of the imprisoned water defenders and colleagues from the Municipal Committee of Tocoa in Defense of Public and Common Goods were invited to Washington, D.C. to receive the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award. During that time, we accompanied them to meet with Members of Congress to brief them on the ongoing repression of environmental activists in Honduras. In response, Sen. Jeff Merkley, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, and Rep. Marcy Kaptur have publicly urged Honduran officials to release the water defenders.

The malicious prosecution of the Guapinol defenders stems from peaceful protests against an illegal mining project that threatens the community’s drinking water and livelihood. The controversial projects, an iron oxide mine inside the Carlos Escaleras National Park and an iron pellet processing plant, are being built without the required environmental license near the communities of Guapinol, San Pedro and La Ceibita. The companies responsible, Inversiones Los Pinares and Ecotec, continue to develop these projects with government support, despite the immense destruction to water, land, and communities that they will cause.

These companies are linked to one of the most powerful families in Honduras, whose numerous business ventures have been implicated in killings and drug trafficking. Both continue to push the project forward despite the fact the communities resoundingly voted against mining in their municipality in a legally binding referendum on November 29, 2019.  One of the mine’s co-owners, Lenir Pérez, has also been credibly linked to previous efforts to bribe and intimidate local activists. Defamation campaigns and physical attacks against community members and local organizations involved in resisting the projects continue.

In an effort to resist the mining project, activists from Guapinol and nearby communities gathered in August 2018 to form a peaceful protest camp on a public access road to halt construction of the mine. In retaliation, the Honduran state sent 1,500 military and police officers to violently evict the activists. Since the illegal eviction took place at the end of October 2018, the state has brought numerous criminal cases against activists and community members on false and politically-motivated charges. In one notorious case, charges were issued against community member Antonio Martínez Ramos, despite the fact that he has been deceased since 2015—years before the alleged events took place.

In an effort to confront these false accusations, community members named in the charges  voluntarily presented themselves to the courts to find a solution to the legal situation. Just over a year ago, a judge dismissed all charges against the first group of Guapinol water defenders, after human rights observers, including UUSC staff, drew attention to the politically motivated nature of the prosecution and the lack of evidence to support it.

In August 2019, a second group of water defenders, recognized by the Honduran State as pertaining to a legitimate human rights organization defending the environment, took the same course of action. The seven men, knowing they had done no wrong, presented themselves voluntarily to the courts. Despite the fact that the charges against them are equally baseless, a different judge indicted them on some of the charges and sent them to pretrial confinement without justification. Six months later, they remain in jail. In addition, another activist, Jeremías Martínez, who is the beneficiary of precautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, has been in jail since December 2018 for these and other charges.

Honduras, a small country with limited resources and plagued by corruption and impunity, is already grappling with how to respond to the coronavirus. As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases increases, so does the risk for the Guapinol and Sector San Pedro water defenders. This week, there is an important opportunity to reverse this injustice so that they can be immediately released from pretrial jail.

Photo Credit: Radio Progreso

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About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

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