Honduran Indigenous leaders at risk of unfair imprisonment

Authorities in Honduras must drop spurious charges against three indigenous leaders who will receive a verdict in their trial tomorrow. There have been increasing attacks against human rights defenders in the country ahead of presidential elections in November, Amnesty International said.

“Defending human rights in Honduras has become a life-threatening activity with Indigenous leaders protecting their peoples’ rights, being particularly vulnerable to attack,” said Nancy Tapias Torrado, Researcher on Human Rights Defenders in the Americas at Amnesty International. She met with the three leaders in May.

Indigenous leaders Bertha Cáceres, Tomás Gómez and Aureliano Molina, have been charged with “usurpation, coercion and continued damages” for allegedly inciting others to commit these crimes. If they are imprisoned, Amnesty International will consider them prisoners of conscience.

The three defendants were at the forefront of a campaign regarding a hydroelectric project in Rio Blanco, north-west Honduras where the Lenca Indigenous community live. They want their human rights, including that to free, prior and informed consent over the development, to be respected.

Bertha Cáceres, coordinator of the Civic Council of the Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) is also facing charges of carrying an unlicensed gun. She claims that it was planted by the military officers at a checkpoint. The trial on these charges is still ongoing.

“It is clear that Bertha Cáceres is being harassed in order to stop her from defending the rights of the Lenca Indigenous Peoples,” said Nancy Tapias Torrado.

The case comes amid increasing attacks against those who defend human rights across Honduras.

On 15 July, the Honduran army killed Indigenous leader Tomás García and injured his son after opening fire against a peaceful demonstration against the hydroelectric project in Rio Blanco. A soldier is currently facing criminal proceedings in relation to the killing.

A judge and a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) activist were killed in the same month.

In a separate event, also last July, two activists from the campaign group Proyecto de Acompañamiento en Honduras (PROAH) were kidnapped by a number of armed men as they were visiting human rights defenders leading a campaign against a local mining project.

The kidnappers said they worked at the mine and told the activists that if they ever came back, they would “disappear in the woods”.

In most cases documented by Amnesty International, investigations into threats or attacks against human rights defenders are almost non-existent. Effective protection for those in danger is rarely available.

“Instead of trying to silence those who defend human rights, authorities in Honduras should publicly recognize their legitimate and fundamental work, engage with them and work together to improve the situation for all.”