Attacks and Threats Remain a Very Serious Concern
December 21, 2010
We undertook this independent assessment because a year and a half after the coup in Honduras, the consequences for human rights are still being felt. It is clear from our findings that until Honduran authorities take concrete steps to reduce impunity and stop the attacks, it will be very difficult to restore trust in the country’s democratic system.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch

Honduran authorities should take concrete steps to end impunity for abuses committed after the country's 2009 coup, and to curb ongoing attacks against journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 65-page report, "After the Coup: Ongoing Violence, Intimidation, and Impunity in Honduras," documents the state's failure to ensure accountability for abuses committed under the country's de facto government in 2009. The report also documents 47 cases of threats or attacks - including 18 killings - against journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists since the inauguration of President Porfirio Lobo in January 2010. 

"We undertook this independent assessment because a year and a half after the coup in Honduras, the consequences for human rights are still being felt," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.  "It is clear from our findings that until Honduran authorities take concrete steps to reduce impunity and stop the attacks, it will be very difficult to restore trust in the country's democratic system."

The lack of accountability - and ongoing violence and threats - have had a chilling effect on free speech and political participation in Honduras, particularly among those who opposed the 2009 coup, Human Rights Watch said.

The 2009 coup was condemned by the international community. The OAS suspended Honduras's membership, and many Latin American governments withdrew their ambassadors from the country. The United States also objected to the coup; though, unfortunately, it waited more than two months before imposing effective sanctions on the de facto government.

Post-Coup Abuses

After the coup, security forces committed serious human rights violations - including  excessive force against demonstrators and arbitrary detentions - as well as illegitimate restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly.

No one has been held criminally responsible for any of these violations. The Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General's Office has filed charges in 20 cases of alleged violations committed under the de facto government. Judges acquitted the defendants in eight cases and the rest remain pending before the courts, including some cases that are stalled because the accused remain at large.

This lack of progress is primarily the result of the lack of cooperation with, and support for, the Human Rights Unit on the part of other state institutions, particularly during the early stage of the investigations in 2009, Human Rights Watch said.  

Security forces obstructed investigations of abuses committed after the coup, Human Rights Watch found. They failed to turn over firearms for ballistics tests, to respond to information requests to identify officers accused of committing abuses, and to grant access to military installations. While security forces have been somewhat more cooperative since President Lobo took office, the earlier lack of cooperation has had a lasting impact on the investigations.

Other obstacles include the Human Rights Unit's limited resources and its reliance on investigative police who lack the independence necessary to conduct impartial investigations into violations by security forces. Progress on these cases has been hindered by the government's failure to allocate funds to the Witness Protection Program.

In addition, the Supreme Court created a climate in which lower-court judges were discouraged from ruling against de facto authorities, Human Rights Watch said. The court endorsed the military's actions on the day of the coup, and subsequently disregarded constitutional appeals challenging policies of the de facto government. It also exercised its disciplinary powers in an arbitrary and seemingly political fashion in May, when it fired four judges who had publicly questioned the coup's legality.

Attacks on Journalists, Human Rights Defenders, Political Activists

Since President Lobo's inauguration, at least 18 journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists have been killed, several in circumstances that suggest the crimes may have been politically motivated. For example, on February 15, gunmen shot and killed Julio Benitez, an opponent of the coup who had received numerous threatening phone calls warning him to abandon his participation in opposition groups.

Human Rights Watch has also received credible reports of 29 other cases involving threats or attacks against journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists. For example:

  • On April 8, Father Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit priest and human rights advocate, received a text message threatening to kill the family of a female coup opponent who had been raped by police officers. Father Moreno had been helping the woman and her family to leave Honduras.
  • In early June, Eliodoro Caceres Benitez, a political activist, received three telephone death threats stating that members of organized crime would kill him and his family. His son has been missing since June 13.
  • On September 15, police and military members attacked the offices of Radio Uno, a station that has been critical of the coup. They threw tear gas into the radio station's offices, broke windows in the building, damaged equipment, and seriously injured one person.

Available information indicates that Honduran authorities have made very little, if any, progress in investigating these cases. In the absence of thorough investigations it is difficult to determine how many of the attacks were politically motivated or whether there was official involvement in any of them.

Yet the ongoing political polarization in Honduras and circumstantial evidence in the majority of the 2010 cases in this report - including explicit statements by perpetrators in some instances -suggest that many victims may have been targeted because of their political views, fueling a climate of fear that has undermined basic freedoms in Honduras. 

One political activist, for example, told Human Rights Watch that she had felt compelled to abandon her political activities after armed men accosted her and her daughters. Another, who was shot in the leg during an assassination attempt, said he had stopped participating in political activities as a result of the attack. A radio journalist held that a colleague left his job at the station where they worked after receiving repeated death threats for his political views.

Recommendations

The report recommends that Honduran authorities:

Support the Human Rights Unit by:

  • providing additional funds to extend the one-year budget increase approved by Congress for the unit for 2011;
  • guaranteeing the full collaboration of military and police personnel with ongoing investigations; and
  • allocating funds to the Witness Protection Program, which has not received specific funding since it was created.

Strengthen judicial independence by:

  • creating an independent body to take over many of the Supreme Court's disciplinary functions; and
  • establishing procedures for appointing, sanctioning, and removing judges and judicial employees that are transparent and protect against political interference in judicial processes.

Establish an International Commission of Inquiry to:

  • carry out thorough investigations into abuses committed after the coup and into ongoing attacks and threats against journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists; and
  • support the efforts of the Human Rights Unit to prosecute these cases.