Activists in Honduras tell Amnesty International of hidden human rights crisis

As Honduras’ president elect Porfirio Lobo prepares to take power, new questions arise about events that have taken place since the coup d’etat last June. An Amnesty International delegation in the country talked to human rights activists about the hidden crisis affecting the Central American nation.

Read interviews with activists: Dina Meza – “We have gone back 30 years” Donny Reyes – “Most crimes against LGBT people are lost in limbo” Alexis Quiroz – “The population needs to be informed to make objective decisions”

Gilda Rivera: “Women are at higher risk because they are considered second class citizens” Gilda Rivera works in an apparent oasis of calm on a hill in Tegucigalpa. When you are there, among the plants and paintings which decorate the building, it’s hard to imagine the stories she and her organization hear. But some days, an unknown car appears and parks suspiciously in the close vicinity of the offices for no apparent reason and waits, then it leaves. Gilda is the director of the Centre for Women’s Rights (Centro para Derechos las Mujeres), a group that works to document and combat violence against women in Honduras.   In a report published recently, the group painted a dark picture of what it is like to be a woman in Honduras, where hundreds have been victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence and murder. Gilda says the situation for Honduran women has always been worrying but since the coup d’etat of June 2009, things have deteriorated rapidly. “When the whole population is facing human rights violations, women are at even greater risk because we are considered second class citizens,” said Gilda. The Centre for Women’s Rights has documented a number of cases of sexual violence against women reportedly committed by members of the security forces since de coup d’etat, particularly in the north of the country. “A woman was detained by police officers after a demonstration, taken to a piece of wasteland and raped by four police officers. She recognized some of them from the names she could see on their uniforms. “They left her there. She was forced to move away from her home because of the fear she feels. This is the punishment women experience for daring to speak out – to participate, to be citizens.”   Gilda is convinced that the historical lack of investigations and justice for women who have suffered violence is contributing to more cases of abuse. “The coup d’etat ruined much of what we had gained and achieved… all women have received is more violence.” Dina Meza: “We have gone back 30 years” Dina Meza lives and talks human rights at every opportunity she is given. As a journalist, an activist and a member of COFADEH (Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras), one of Honduras’ oldest human rights organizations, she knows all too well what it means to work on an issue that is not always popular with the authorities. The past five months have been particularly challenging for Dina and her colleagues at COFADEH. Its members have spent countless days and nights collecting testimonies of threats, harassment, police beatings, arbitrary arrests, ill treatment and killings across the country. They then file habeas corpus and other legal remedies on behalf of those affected by the repression. In one of the most serious incidents, on 23 September, police threw tear gas canisters inside their office in Tegucigalpa, while Dina and other colleagues were inside the building. The message was clear from those who had taken power: defending human rights was part of the problem, not the solution. Dina believes the underlying problem in Honduras is a lack of justice prevailing since the 1980s, when hundreds of people were killed or disappeared at the hands of the country’s security forces. “The generations who were repressed in the 80s – the men and women killed, disappeared, and whose relatives still haven’t received justice – all this accumulated impunity and the human rights abusers who are calmly walking the streets of Honduras, this all has to do with what’s happening now. It teaches us that when repression goes unpunished, it happens again,” Dina said. “We have legal repression, police repression, military repression – so what does this mean? We have to reform and reconstitute all these institutions and start again, with a new procedure.” Donny Reyes: “Most crimes against LGBT people are lost in limbo” Before the political crisis blew up in Honduras, Donny Reyes was trying to put his country on the map internationally, working to raise awareness of the abuses and discrimination suffered by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgender people. But as the Central American nation slid into political turmoil, human rights were sidelined. “We had started talks with the Public Prosecutor’s Office, with members of the police and some members of the government for the investigation [of crimes against the LGBT community] and access to some public services. This stopped after the coup d’etat,” Donny explained. According to information published by the organization Donny works for, the Rainbow Association, killings of transsexual people have also increased sharply since the coup d’etat. Research conducted by Rainbow found that there were 12 killings of gay, lesbian, trans sexual and transgender people in Honduras in the whole of 2008. In the four months since the coup d’etat, that figure reached 14. “These are the violent deaths and crimes that we have documented. It doesn’t include the many others we don’t know of – the ones that are left in impunity, lost in limbo,” said Donny. The activist – who was himself a victim of abuse at the hands of the security forces in 2007 – said the most worrying point of the crisis was during the state of emergency in the first week after the coup d’etat, when curfews were implemented in different areas of the country. During that time, at least three members of the LGBT community were killed. Fabio Zamora was shot in the head while he was working in a market. Marion Cardenas was shot in the forehead on 29 June. Vicky Hernandez died the same way in San Pedro Sula, during the curfew on 28 June. “During the state of emergency you could feel a climate of fear, collective panic. Nothing could move here if it hadn’t been authorized by the armed forces, particularly the army. When the state of emergency was declared that day, everybody just ran home to hide and find refuge. What the authorities would do that night was nobody’s responsibility.” Alexis Quiroz: “The population needs to be informed to make objective decisions” In Alexis’s office, an old house in Tegucigalpa, the TV is stuck on one channel, Canal 36, one of the main news stations in the country. But there are no images on the screen. Instead, a multi-coloured test card reads: “They interfere with Canal 36’s signal to prevent us from informing you.” This very sentence is reflective of the situation faced by journalists across Honduras and the changes in the way the media operates in the context of Honduras’ political crisis. “Before the coup d’etat we had some differences of opinion with the government but we didn’t have censorship; we didn’t have violence against journalists or other people who spoke out against the government,” said Alexis “Now we even have decrees which say that nobody can say anything against a public official, you can’t express any kind of unfavourable opinion against a public official.” C-Libre, the organization where Alexis works, has recorded 130 incidents of threats, dismissals and attacks against journalists since the coup d’etat on 28 June. “Military occupation of media outlets is high, the level of physical attacks against journalists is very high, and there are threats – these are the three most pressing issues. We have at least 130 cases, including closures of media outlets.”