Conviction of activist in El Salvador highlights need for a safer environment for defenders

On 9th February 2020, President Nayib Bukele marched into El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly with several armed soldiers, briefly occupying the plenary in an attempt to push lawmakers to approve a loan to fund his security plan. Earlier in the day, Bukele had called on his supporters to protest in front of the Legislative Assembly to put pressure on legislators. According to news reports, hundreds gathered outside the building to hear the president speak. “If those shameless people don’t approve the plan of territorial control, we’ll summon you here again (next) Sunday,” Bukele threatened. Lawmakers accused Bukele of staging an “attempted coup”.

Commenting on this incident, the Americas director at Amnesty International, Erika Guevara-Rosas said:

“The ostentatious police and military deployment in the Legislative Assembly reminds us of the darkest times in El Salvador’s history and raises international alarm over the future of human rights in the country. President Nayib Bukele must safeguard the crucial legacy of the peace accords.”

Association

Activist convicted of slander

On 11th December 2019, human rights defender Lissania Zelaya of feminist collective Colectiva Amorales was found guilty of slander. She was sentenced to pay a fine of USD 2,027 for denouncing the fact that university professor Ricardo Mendoza had used his position as a drama teacher to sexually assault and harass students. Another activist was acquitted in the same case because of lack of evidence. As previously reported on the Monitor, Colectiva Amorales has denounced Mendoza’s abuses since 2016 and this judicial case against two of its activists has been seen by local human rights organisations as an attempt to silence the defenders.

According to news reports, the judge emphasised that Amorales did not use institutional channels such as the Public Prosecutor’s Office to lodge their complaints until 2018. The decision also considered that they did not offer sufficient evidence that Mendoza abused students. Regional human rights organisation IM-Defensoras stated that this conviction reflects why victims of sexual assault do not report it and have little confidence in the Salvadoran justice system, highlighting the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of violence in academic circles and other spaces of power. Colectiva Amorales has appealed the decision.

IACHR preliminary report published

On 27th December 2019, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) published their preliminary report following an in loco visit to El Salvador in early December 2019. In their initial findings, the IACHR highlighted the stigmatisation of defenders, in particular of women human rights defenders, and the public vilification conducted by the authorities. IACHR asked the Salvadoran State to establish a safe working environment for human rights defenders and to avoid promoting their stigmatisation and discredit.

Expression

On freedom of expression, IACHR’s preliminary report stresses the importance of an independent media, recommending the promotion of respect for journalistic work and an environment conducive to editorial independence in El Salvador. In interviews the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanza, warned that the use of state advertising as a reward or punishment for the media threatens the independence of the press. The IACHR also reported the stigmatisation of journalists, barriers to access to information, and restrictions in the access of critical outlets to government press conferences.