Widespread and Continuing Abuses Documented by Inter-American Commission
August 25, 2009
Given the ongoing abuses documented by the Commission and the lack of effective legal protection, it is urgent that the international community exert concerted and effective pressure to restore democratic government in Honduras.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) - The finding by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of widespread abuses in Honduras should compel the international community to take firm action, such as targeted sanctions, to resolve the country's ongoing crisis, Human Rights Watch said today.

The commission released a report on August 21, 2009, showing a pattern of serious violations under the de facto government, including excessive use of force, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, and attacks on the media, as well as several confirmed deaths and possible "disappearances." The commission also documented an absence of effective legal protections from abuse.

"Given the ongoing abuses documented by the commission and the lack of effective legal protection, it is urgent that the international community exert concerted and effective pressure to restore democratic government in Honduras," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

In the aftermath of the June 28 coup d'état, Human Rights Watch and other local and international advocacy groups urged the Organization of American States (OAS) to address serious human rights abuses being committed in Honduras under the de facto government. Given the scope of alleged abuses, and the region's history of bloody coups leading to massive violations, human rights advocates believed the situation warranted the direct intervention of the region's most authoritative human rights investigative body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The commission conducted an extensive fact-finding mission from August 17 to 21. It met with representatives of the de facto government and representatives of various sectors of civil society, and received complaints, testimony, and information from more than 100 individuals.

"While the OAS has yet to show results in resolving Honduras's democratic crisis, the commission has demonstrated the crucial role that this regional mechanism can play when a country's rule of law is badly undermined," Vivanco said.

INTER-AMERICAN COMMISSION'S FINDINGS

In its preliminary findings, the commission found "a pattern of disproportionate use of public force" by the military and police, which has resulted in the deaths of at least four people, dozens of wounded, and thousands of arbitrary detentions. It also found that the de facto government has abused its emergency powers, using the military to limit freedom of assembly and expression. The commission confirmed that women had suffered sexual violence, and that threats, detentions, and beatings of journalists had created an atmosphere of intimidation among critical media outlets. While the commission reported some serious acts of violence and vandalism by protesters, it noted that the majority of demonstrations were peaceful.

Deaths and Possible ‘Disappearances'

The commission documented four deaths resulting from the use of excessive force under the de facto government. Isis Obed Murillo Mencías died after being shot in the head while participating in a demonstration outside Tegucigalpa's Toncontin Airport on July 5. The body of Pedro Magdiel Muñoz, which bore signs of torture, was found on July 25 in the department of El Paraíso. Witnesses told the commission that Muñoz had participated in a rally in front of military roadblocks that day and had been arrested by the military. Roger Vallejos Soriano, a teacher, was shot in the head during a protest in Comayagüela on July 30. Pedro Pablo Hernández was shot in the head by a soldier at a military roadblock in the valley of Jamastran on August 2, according to testimony collected by the commission. 

The commission also reported that, despite four requests for information, the state has been unable to account for two individuals. One was last seen at a protest on July 12, and the other was seized at home on July 26.

Excessive Use of Force

The commission found "a pattern of disproportionate use of public force" by the military and police. More than 100 people verified that a disproportionate use of force was used in repressing demonstrations. The excessive use of force characterized the security forces' suppression of demonstrations in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, Choloma, Comayagua, and the town of El Paraíso - and resulted in deaths, cases of torture and mistreatment, and hundreds of wounded.

According to the report: "In the various departments to which it traveled, the commission received testimony about individuals wounded by lead bullets or injured by blows with police truncheons and other blunt objects made of rubber, iron, and wood, and about the indiscriminate use of tear gas, as customary methods used to deter demonstrations. The commission received testimony from dozens of people with serious injuries to the head as a result of the repression exercised both by police and military personnel." 

Arbitrary Detentions

The commission condemned the widespread use of arbitrary detentions to "silence and obstruct expressions of protest." It concluded that between 3,500 and 4,000 people had been arrested arbitrarily by the military and police during protests, and detained for periods ranging from 45 minutes to 24 hours. Many detainees were subjected to beatings, threats and verbal attacks while in custody.

In many cases, the due process rights of individuals were also violated. Detainees were not informed of the grounds for their arrest, records were not kept of their imprisonment, and neither judicial authorities nor public prosecutors were informed of their cases, the commission found. Furthermore, detainees' right to challenge the grounds for their detention (habeas corpus) was not upheld. In some cases, judges who responded to petitions for habeas corpus were mistreated and threatened at gunpoint. In addition, the commission found that, in many cases, public prosecutors failed to investigate the cases of detainees who had been injured or were being detained.

Sexual Violence

The commission found that "women were especially subject to acts of violence and humiliation because of their gender." The commission heard the testimony about two incidents that reportedly took place in San Pedro Sula, one in which a woman said she had been raped by police officers and another in which a woman said she was stripped from the waist down and beaten with batons.

The commission confirmed that the police and army groped the breasts and genitals of women in detention. And women denounced security officers for forcibly spreading the women's legs and touching their genitals with police batons.

Attacks on the Media

The commission found that attacks on the media have intensified in recent weeks, generating "an atmosphere of intimidation that inhibits the free exercise of freedom of expression." Among other tactics, it reported that the de facto government, military and police had suspended or closed TV channels and radio stations; threatened, detained, and beaten members of the media; and attacked the offices of critical news outlets.

The commission confirmed that at least eight national TV stations, three major radio stations, and several international news channels were interrupted or suspended during the June 28 coup. It collected testimony from 10 journalists who were assaulted by security forces while attempting to cover demonstrations, and five more who said they were detained and beaten by police or the military. It also compiled information about nearly 20 threats against journalists, and five major attacks on the offices of critical media outlets. On August 12, for example, a Channel 36 cameraman, Richard Cazula, was filming a rally in Tegucigalpa when security officers assaulted him, beating him and damaging his camera.

While the attacks predominantly targeted critics of the de facto government, the commission also reported attacks on journalists and outlets that support the coup, such as the newspaper El Heraldo, which was attacked on August 14 by a group of masked men who threw Molotov cocktails at its building.

Abuse of Emergency Powers

The commission expressed concern about the continuing use of the military to control protests and maintain public order. While acknowledging that "under exceptional circumstances the armed forces may be called on to participate in controlling demonstrations," the commission argued that this exercise must be limited in scope because the military lacks training for policing. The report criticized the military's ongoing use of curfews, which are being enforced "without any type of legal foundation" and are being applied in a discriminatory fashion. The commission found that thousands of people have been trapped between military checkpoints, which have been set up with no justification. From July 24 to 27, between 4,000 and 5,000 people were caught between military roadblocks near the border with Nicaragua. Participants told the commission that the military used teargas on them, denied them food and water, and would not give medical attention to the wounded.

Lack of Legal Protection

In addition to documenting widespread abuses, the commission found that the judiciary had failed in its duty to review the actions of the de facto government, in spite of clear violations of Honduran and international law and various appeals (amparos) for legal review. It also found the judiciary had failed to assess the legality of the emergency measures implemented by the de facto government, neglecting its responsibility to act as a check on executive power. In the context of this inaction, and as a result of the judiciary's inadequate response to reported violations, the commission concluded that "the judicial remedies available in Honduras do not currently offer efficient and effective protection against human rights violations in the context of the coup d'état."

The commission also questioned the performance of the public prosecutor's office. It reported receiving "consistent and repeated information confirming that, in many cases, the offices of public prosecutors have not begun official investigations into the existence of groups of people who have been injured and in custody."

(The justice system's credibility as an impartial guarantor of fundamental rights is further undermined by the fact that both the president of the Supreme Court and the attorney general have been outspoken in their support of the coup. Moreover, on August 23 - two days after the commission released its findings - the Supreme Court issued a ruling in which it formally endorsed President Manuel Zelaya's removal from power and the legitimacy of the de facto government.)

Violence and Vandalism by Zelaya Supporters

While the commission found that the majority of demonstrations had been peaceful, it noted there have been exceptional cases in which protesters have committed acts of violence, "some of them serious, against persons and against property." These acts include the burning of a restaurant and an attack on a congressional deputy.

THE NEED FOR CONCERTED INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE

An OAS delegation arrived in Honduras on August 24 to meet with various public and private actors with the goal of promoting the signing of the San Jose Accord, a plan that would return Zelaya to power until elections are held by the end of November. The delegation includes the foreign ministers of Argentina, Canada, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama and the Dominican Republic, as well as by OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza.

"If the OAS delegation is unable this week to persuade Honduras's de facto government to allow Zelaya's return to the presidency, the only option left will be for the international community to ratchet up the pressure," said Vivanco. "The US government in particular could play a key role through the use of carefully targeted sanctions."

The United States has condemned the coup and suspended about US$18 million in mostly military and development aid to the de facto government. However, the Obama administration has so far resisted imposing more far-reaching sanctions, citing the detrimental impact they could have on the Honduras's struggling economy.

Human Rights Watch has previously urged the Obama administration to consider using carefully tailored sanctions that would directly target officials in the de facto government without affecting the broader population. These might include cancelling their travel visas, denying them access to the US banking system, and targeting their private sources of income.

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