Honduras: Prosecute Post-Coup Abuses

For Immediate Release

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Honduras: Prosecute Post-Coup Abuses

Attacks and Threats Remain a Very Serious Concern

NEW YORK - Honduran authorities should take concrete
steps to end impunity for abuses committed after the country's 2009
coup, and to curb ongoing attacks against journalists, human rights
defenders, and political activists, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 65-page report, "After the Coup: Ongoing Violence, Intimidation, and Impunity in Honduras,"
documents the state's failure to ensure accountability for abuses
committed under the country's de facto government in 2009. The report
also documents 47 cases of threats or attacks - including 18 killings -
against journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists
since the inauguration of President Porfirio Lobo in January 2010. 

"We undertook this independent assessment because a year and a half
after the coup in Honduras, the consequences for human rights are still
being felt," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights
Watch.  "It is clear from our findings that until Honduran authorities
take concrete steps to reduce impunity and stop the attacks, it will be
very difficult to restore trust in the country's democratic system."

The lack of accountability - and ongoing violence and threats - have
had a chilling effect on free speech and political participation in
Honduras, particularly among those who opposed the 2009 coup, Human
Rights Watch said.

The 2009 coup was condemned by the international community. The OAS
suspended Honduras's membership, and many Latin American governments
withdrew their ambassadors from the country. The United States also
objected to the coup; though, unfortunately, it waited more than two
months before imposing effective sanctions on the de facto government.

Post-Coup Abuses

After the coup, security forces committed serious human rights
violations - including  excessive force against demonstrators and
arbitrary detentions - as well as illegitimate restrictions on freedom
of expression and assembly.

No one has been held criminally responsible for any of these
violations. The Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General's Office has
filed charges in 20 cases of alleged violations committed under the de
facto government. Judges acquitted the defendants in eight cases and the
rest remain pending before the courts, including some cases that are
stalled because the accused remain at large.

This lack of progress is primarily the result of the lack of
cooperation with, and support for, the Human Rights Unit on the part of
other state institutions, particularly during the early stage of the
investigations in 2009, Human Rights Watch said.  

Security forces obstructed investigations of abuses committed after
the coup, Human Rights Watch found. They failed to turn over firearms
for ballistics tests, to respond to information requests to identify
officers accused of committing abuses, and to grant access to military
installations. While security forces have been somewhat more cooperative
since President Lobo took office, the earlier lack of cooperation has
had a lasting impact on the investigations.

Other obstacles include the Human Rights Unit's limited resources and
its reliance on investigative police who lack the independence
necessary to conduct impartial investigations into violations by
security forces. Progress on these cases has been hindered by the
government's failure to allocate funds to the Witness Protection
Program.

In addition, the Supreme Court created a climate in which lower-court
judges were discouraged from ruling against de facto authorities, Human
Rights Watch said. The court endorsed the military's actions on the day
of the coup, and subsequently disregarded constitutional appeals
challenging policies of the de facto government. It also exercised its
disciplinary powers in an arbitrary and seemingly political fashion in
May, when it fired four judges who had publicly questioned the coup's
legality.

Attacks on Journalists, Human Rights Defenders, Political Activists

Since President Lobo's inauguration, at least 18 journalists, human
rights defenders, and political activists have been killed, several in
circumstances that suggest the crimes may have been politically
motivated. For example, on February 15, gunmen shot and killed Julio
Benitez, an opponent of the coup who had received numerous threatening
phone calls warning him to abandon his participation in opposition
groups.

Human Rights Watch has also received credible reports of 29 other
cases involving threats or attacks against journalists, human rights
defenders, and political activists. For example:

  • On April 8, Father Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit priest and human rights
    advocate, received a text message threatening to kill the family of a
    female coup opponent who had been raped by police officers. Father
    Moreno had been helping the woman and her family to leave Honduras.
  • In early June, Eliodoro Caceres Benitez, a political activist,
    received three telephone death threats stating that members of organized
    crime would kill him and his family. His son has been missing since
    June 13.
  • On September 15, police and military members attacked the offices of
    Radio Uno, a station that has been critical of the coup. They threw
    tear gas into the radio station's offices, broke windows in the
    building, damaged equipment, and seriously injured one person.

Available information indicates that Honduran authorities have made
very little, if any, progress in investigating these cases. In the
absence of thorough investigations it is difficult to determine how many
of the attacks were politically motivated or whether there was official
involvement in any of them.

Yet the ongoing political polarization in Honduras and circumstantial
evidence in the majority of the 2010 cases in this report - including
explicit statements by perpetrators in some instances -suggest that many
victims may have been targeted because of their political views,
fueling a climate of fear that has undermined basic freedoms in
Honduras. 

One political activist, for example, told Human Rights Watch that she
had felt compelled to abandon her political activities after armed men
accosted her and her daughters. Another, who was shot in the leg during
an assassination attempt, said he had stopped participating in political
activities as a result of the attack. A radio journalist held that a
colleague left his job at the station where they worked after receiving
repeated death threats for his political views.

Recommendations

The report recommends that Honduran authorities:

Support the Human Rights Unit by:

  • providing additional funds to extend the one-year budget increase approved by Congress for the unit for 2011;
  • guaranteeing the full collaboration of military and police personnel with ongoing investigations; and
  • allocating funds to the Witness Protection Program, which has not received specific funding since it was created.

Strengthen judicial independence by:

  • creating an independent body to take over many of the Supreme Court's disciplinary functions; and
  • establishing procedures for appointing, sanctioning, and removing
    judges and judicial employees that are transparent and protect against
    political interference in judicial processes.

Establish an International Commission of Inquiry to:

  • carry out thorough investigations into abuses committed after the
    coup and into ongoing attacks and threats against journalists, human
    rights defenders, and political activists; and
  • support the efforts of the Human Rights Unit to prosecute these cases.
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Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.

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