Repression of peaceful assembly has become a pattern in Honduras

Peaceful Assembly

On 15 September 2019, the date of Honduras’ independence, the police repressed a demonstration organised in Tegucigalpa by opposition party Libertad y Refundación (Libre), which is led by former president Manuel Zelaya. While the official parade took place in one part of the city, the demonstrators in an alternative march protested against the current government and accused president Juan Orlando Hernández of electoral fraud. Police used tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and water cannon against protesters. According to the security forces, the confrontation began when a group of protesters attempted to break through barriers set up to block the entrance to the National Stadium, where celebrations were being held. At least four people were reportedly injured, including photojournalist Cesar Fuentes.

In September 2019, several communities located near La Tigra National Park organised protests against housing project Santa María, which they fear could cause deforestation and threaten the Park’s water resources. Community members organised roadblocks on several days, and were repeatedly met with police repression. On 17 September 2019, two people were reported injured by bullets at the protests, and human rights organisations denounced the indiscriminate and excessive use of tear gas by riot police. On the same day, news outlets reported that the housing project would be suspended for two months in order to conduct a dialogue with the communities.

On 25 September 2019, during the 173 rd session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) in Washington, civil society organisations in Honduras denounced the government’s policy of repression, violence and the criminalisation of social protest. In 2019 alone, their statement highlighted, 9 people have been killed, 88 injured and more than 200 people criminalised. According to the signing organisations - Coalición Contra la Impunidad, Amnesty International, Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Defensoras de Derechos Humanos (IM-Defensoras) and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL )- public security has been militarised and there is a pattern of excessive use of force, including by the use of firearms, indiscriminate use of tear gas, attacks on physical and mental integrity, stigmatisation campaigns and arbitrary detention. They urged the Honduran government to stop these repressive practices and also requested monitoring and support from international organisations such as CIDH.

On 3 October 2019, CIVICUS, Red Latinoamericana y del Caribe para la Democracia (REDLAD) and the Asociación de Organismos No Gubernamentales (ASONOG) released their joint submission on the state of civil society in Honduras, in preparation for the May 2020 UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session. The document highlights the long-standing criminalisation and repression of protests, which has escalated since the 2017 protests contesting the presidential election. The submission also underscores the persistently high levels of violence against rights defenders and journalists in Honduras.

Association

On 17 September 2019, security forces obstructed the work of two women HRDs with attempts to intimidate them. Elizabeth Medina and Katherin Cruz Cerrato were both documenting the repression of peaceful protests against housing project Santa María in Tegucigalpa, detailed in the Peaceful Assembly section of this update. According to IM-Defensoras’ alert, the police intentionally threw tear gas cannisters at Elizabeth Medina’s feet and threatened another defender from her organisation, Derechos Humanos Sin Fronteras, with a firearm. In a separate incident at the same protest, the police obstructed the passage of Katherin Cruz’s vehicle, demanding to inspect the car and threatening to decommission the driver, Ever Trinidad. The police allegedly confiscated their documents, made derogatory comments about their work and accused the driver of taking part in roadblocks at the protest.

On 22 September 2019, the police detained land rights defender María Concepción Hernández and charged her with usurping land. The complainant, Jorge Cassis Leiva, is a landowner reported to have repeatedly harassed and threatened the residents of Playa Blanca in the Zacate Grande peninsula. Hernández is a member of the Board of Directors of ADEPZA, Asociación para el Desarrollo de la Península de Zacate Grande (Association for the Development of the Zacate Grande Peninsula). On 23 September 2019, a judge placed Hernández under “alternative measures” requiring her to present herself in court twice a month. An initial hearing was scheduled for 9 October 2019.

Expression

On 31 August 2019, journalist Edgar Joel Aguilar was shot and killed by two unidentified men in a barbershop in La Entrada, Copán. Aguilar covered general news, including local crime and violence, for Cablemar TV and worked as a regional correspondent for Channel 6. The journalist is reported to have requested protection the day before he was killed, because he was being watched and followed by unknown persons. As reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Cablemar TV’s news director stated that Aguilar had received several threats in the past. C-Libre Honduras had registered at least two attacks against the journalist, including an attempt on his life in 2012.

On 26 September 2019, human rights defender and journalist Sandra Marybel Sánchez was threatened at gunpoint by an unknown man in Tegucigalpa. Sánchez was getting out of her car when the man approached her, pointed a gun to her head and told her to get back in her car. At that moment, another car passing by interrupted the attack, causing the assailant to flee on his motorcycle. The reporter works as an anchor for local broadcaster Radio Progresso. In a press conference, Sánchez disclosed having previously received threats related to her work denouncing state violence, corruption and social vulnerability. Sánchez told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that she has refused to report the incident to authorities or file a complaint to the Prosecutor’s Office, arguing that her previous complaints have gone unresolved. “The justice system in the country is in a deplorable state,” she added.

In a positive development, on 29 August 2019, Honduras’ National Congress announced the decision to remove articles on “crimes against honour”, such as defamation, libel and slander, from the new Criminal Code which will come into force on 10 November 2019. According to the statement, the decision brings Honduras in line with other countries in the region which have made these into civil offences. Freedom of expression advocates have celebrated this decision as a victory for press freedom.