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El Salvador: HRDs face increased risks under the state of exception

Protest against the Nayib Bukele government amid the Independence Day celebrations. 15 September 2022, San Salvador.
Protest against the Nayib Bukele government amid the Independence Day celebrations. 15 September 2022, San Salvador. Photo by Kellys Portillo/APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images.

On 14th September 2022, the National Assembly of El Salvador approved a sixth extension of its ongoing state of exception. The country will complete its seventh month under the measure, which was first declared following a wave of gang violence in late March 2022. Official data showed over 50,000 people had been detained since then. According to Amnesty International, the authorities have dismantled judicial independence and committed torture and thousands of arbitrary detentions and violations of due process. The group said at least 73 detainees have died in state custody.

Meanwhile on 15th September 2022, El Salvador鈥檚 Independence Day, President Nayib Bukele announced that he would seek re-election in 2024. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the door for Bukele鈥檚 re-election was opened in 2021 by a resolution of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court enabling presidents to serve two consecutive terms. Critics have voiced their concerns about the state of the country鈥檚 democracy, saying the Constitution bans consecutive re-election.

Association

Between July 2022 and early September 2022, human rights defenders (HRDs) in El Salvador continued to face increased risk as a result of the country鈥檚 extended state of exception.

As reported by Frontline Defenders, on 17th July 2022, Indigenous defender Alfredo Zetino Santos and his son Alexander Zetino were arrested by National Civil Police (PNC) agents while they were at their home in San Ram贸n, Sonsonate department. During their detention, the authorities made racist comments regarding the defender鈥檚 long hair. After five hours, the authorities released Zetino Santos due to social pressure from the community, without formally notifying him of the reasons for his detention. The international organisation also reported that five of Zetino Santos鈥 children have been arbitrarily arrested during the state of exception.

Frontline Defenders also highlighted two cases of arbitrary detention of women human rights defenders in April and May 2022, expressing deep concern regarding the risk faced by HRDs, journalists and their families in El Salvador.

On a related note, on 31st August 2022 civil society organisations in El Salvador said they had registered 3,186 allegations of power abuses under the state of exception. Arbitrary detentions accounted for the majority of the abuses reported. In most cases, agents of the PNC were identified as being responsible for abuses. The monitoring was conducted by a coalition of civil society groups which included Cristosal, Amate, Red Salvadore帽a de Defensoras de Derechos Humanos, Fundaci贸n de Estudios para la Aplicaci贸n del Derecho (FESPAD), Instituto de Derechos Humanos de la UCA (IDHUCA) and Servicio Social Pasionista (SSPAS).

Report on El Salvador

On 6th September 2022, civil society organisations in the coalition Mesa por el Derecho a Defender Derechos (Board for the Right to Defend Rights) presented their report 鈥淒efending human rights in contexts of crisis: analysis of cases of attacks against human rights defenders and journalists, 2021-2022鈥. The research compiled data from January 2021 to April 2022, showing the adverse environment in which Salvadoran HRDs and journalists operate. There were 246 attacks documented, 106 of which targeted women and 64 targeted groups or organisations.

Three in every four cases documented referred to violations of freedom of expression and the press, including through surveillance, stigmatisation, intimidation and harassment. According to the groups, in 2021 most smear campaigns targeted at HRDs and journalists accused them of acting under false pretences or veiled political interests. In 2022, there was a change in tone in the context of the state of exception, with HRDs and journalists often facing accusations of associating with criminal groups.

Positive court ruling

On 13th September 2022, charges against seven water defenders of Hacienda La Labor were provisionally dismissed by an Ahuachap谩n court. The judge found that the evidence presented was not sufficient to send the defenders to trial, but granted one more year for the Public Prosecutor's Office to present new evidence and reopen the judicial process. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, they had been accused of 鈥渧iolently occupying鈥 property belonging to real estate company Inmobiliaria F茅nix S.A. de C.V, which is developing a luxury housing project in the region. The accusations against the defenders were made after communities in Hacienda La Labor denounced that the company was extracting water without the appropriate permits, affecting water supply to over 20,000 families.

Peaceful Assembly

On 15th September 2022, opposition groups - including war veterans, workers鈥 unions and family members of people arrested during the state of exception - marched through San Salvador to protest against the government. They demanded respect for civil and political rights, and condemned President Bukele鈥檚 announcement that he would seek re-election. Many held banners with photographs of family members who were detained under the state of exception, calling for their release. Feminist groups also joined the protest, demanding respect for sexual and reproductive rights. On the same day, thousands attended the official Independence Day parade, with members of the Armed Forces marching through the capital.

Expression

The Asociaci贸n de Periodistas de El Salvador (Association of Journalists of El Salvador - APES) registered 52 attacks on the press in the first semester of 2022. In most cases, the perpetrators were identified as government institutions, a shift compared to previous years when criminal groups and security forces were identified as the main groups responsible for violations.

On a related note, in early September 2022 photojournalist Jonathan Funes with El Diario de Hoy was stigmatised on social media by a legislator of governing party Nuevas Ideas. Legislator Christian Guevara referred to Funes鈥 coverage of a San Salvador neighbourhood affected by sinkholes, claiming that the photojournalist had benefited from support by the Ministry of Public Works but had not reported on that. APES commented on the incident, reminding public officials that journalists, as citizens, have the right to access public services regardless of their work and the editorial line of the media outlet they work for, and receiving them should not influence their work.