Abelino Chub Caal released amid increasing attacks against HRDs

Association

On 26th April 2019, land rights defender Abelino Chub Caal was found not guilty for ‘aggravated land grabbing’ (usurpación agravada de tierras), ‘arson’ (incendio), ‘coercion’ (coacción), ‘illicit association’ (asociación ilícita) and belonging to ‘illicit armed groups’ (asociacion con grupos armados ilegales). Abelino Chub Caal had been held in detention for over 800 days since his initial arrest. Despite celebrating the decision, the series of events running up to his arrest have concerned other activists working to protect land rights in Guatemala. These activists often clash with both the interests of private companies and other power holders. 

Abelino Chub Caal was initially detained on 4th February 2017, as a result of his activities with the CSO Guillermo Toriello Foundation, which works on land rights issues in Guatemala. The group had been working with communities affected by mining activities in Sierra Santa Cruz in the state of Izabal. Despite a lack of evidence linking Abelino Chub Caal to any crimes, in June 2018 a judge ruled to keep him in detention until the issuance of a final verdict. Onlookers note the case highlights a documented pattern of repression against land rights activists in Guatemala, which often involves criminalising and harassing activists into silence. As we have previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, Guatemalan land rights activists often face severe threats including harassment, detention and even death. The video below offers a background to the case. 

In a separate development, draft amendments to a new law have sparked concern over freedom of association. Civil society organisations in Guatemala have expressed their concern over the new amendments suggested for the Act 5257, that restricts people’s right to association. These changes increase in the number of registration procedures for CSOs and open spaces for the state to intervene in the work of registered groups. Similarly, it also strengthens the state's power to remove the formal registration of CSOs. In a statement, Amnesty International commented on the plans by saying

“In the context of repeated acts of stigmatisation, smear campaigns and other constant attacks by private actors and the Guatemalan authorities against organisations and human rights defenders, law 5257 seems to be another attempt to hinder the work of those who work for justice and human rights.”

The bill's third discussion was set for the 13th February 2019. However, in an unexpected move the bill was suddenly removed from the agenda and is yet to be rescheduled. 

In an unrelated event, on 23rd March 2019 a coalition of CSOs from Guatemala rejected a criminal complaint against Claudia Samayoa and José Manuel Martínez. On 22nd March 2019, the two human rights activists where accused of ‘theft’ (robo), ‘deviation of correspondence’ (desvío o supresión de correspondencia con agravación específica) and ‘influence peddling’ (tráfico de influencias). The allegations were levelled at the activists after they filed a complaint of corruption against eleven of the Supreme Court of Justice members, including its President, on 17th January 2019. The HRD's complaint came after the Supreme Court of Justice decided to remove the immunity of three magistrates of the Constitutional Court who were well known for their work taking action against corruption and human rights abuses. The coalition of CSOs who mobilised in response to the judicial harassment of Samayoa and Martínez, considered the legal procedures against the two HRDs as an abuse of power and a clear attempt to silence opposition to corruption in Guatemala.

The case of judicial harassment documented above remains a real threat for many activists in the country. There are other cases which follow a similar pattern of criminalising human rights activities or harassment of activists. These include the cases of other HRDs such as Jovita Tzul, where two police agents attempted to arrest her on 25th February 2019. Or the case of the land rights defender Rosario Tuyuc, who received threatening emails to coerce her into stopping her work. Similarly, the women’s rights organisation Sector de Mujeres was illegally raided on 8th March 2019, by unidentified individuals who took sensitive information regarding several cases against women’s rights that are being investigated by the organisation.

Finally, the brutal murder of two women has sent shockwaves through the LGBTI community in Guatemala. The bodies of Betzi Esmeralda Co Sagastume and Kelli Maritza Villagrán Recinos, were found in Sanarate, El Progreso. Both women had been stabbed to death and their bodies covered in homophobic messages. Their deaths have raised the alarm in Guatemala for a perceived increase in attacks against people for their sexual orientation or gender identity. These attacks not only directly threaten the LGBTI community but also inadvertently close space for activists working for the rights of the LGBTI community who can also be targeted.

Expression

The CSO Inter American Press Association (IAPA) has reported that freedom of expression in Guatemala is undermined by President Jimmy Morales and his actions against those who investigate or criticise the government. In a statement on 26th March 2019, the group commented on the situation by saying: 

"The attacks have intensified against the media that are critical of the government, especially when President Morales has publicly requested that the media or his executives, whom he accuses of being corrupt and for those seeking sanctions, be included in investigations."

Fears over closing space for journalistic freedom are a recurrent issue in Guatemala. On 4th April 2019, 44 Nobel laureates called on the government of Guatemala to take steps against democratic backsliding, where the right to freedom of expression and association are being undermined. In particular, the Nobel laureates noted the pattern of criminalisation of human rights activism. The statement also emphasised that in 2018, 26 human rights defenders were killed, the majority of them from indigenous communities. The chilling impact of these deaths creates an environment where freedom of expression and human rights activism more broadly, are imperilled. 

Journalists have also been physically attacked. In one example, in late March 2019, Alex Cruz, a journalist working for elPeriódico, and his family were victims of an attack while they were driving from Antigua Guatemala to the capital. Unidentified individuals in a black car drove alongside the car and fired shots at Cruz's family, hitting Cruz's son in the leg. In response, elPeriódico condemned the attack as "devious", and used it as an emblematic example of the threats faced by independent journalists in Guatemala.