Evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch suggests that Honduran soldiers may have used excessive force against supporters of the ousted president, Manuel Zelaya, outside the Tegucigalpa airport on July 5, 2009, Human Rights Watch said today. At least one teenage boy was killed, and more than 10 other people are reported to have been injured during the confrontation between soldiers and demonstrators. Reports of a second death remain unconfirmed.
Honduran officials have publicly claimed that the army was not responsible for the reported casualties. But testimony from witnesses, along with photographs and video footage taken at the time of the shooting, indicate that soldiers may have shot live ammunition at unarmed demonstrators.
"The evidence we've seen suggests that soldiers shot at unarmed demonstrators," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "Because someone is dead, the de facto government is obliged to make sure an independent investigation is carried out instead of issuing blanket denials."
On July 6, the de facto government's foreign minister claimed that the security forces had "no responsibility" for the casualties and that the two reported deaths were the result of shooting by demonstrators. The national human rights ombudsman stated that the army had used only rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.
Human Rights Watch said these statements are inconsistent with the evidence it has reviewed. Two foreign journalists (a photojournalist and a videojournalist), reported to Human Rights Watch that they did not see the demonstrators carrying lethal weapons when the confrontation began, though one witness said some of the demonstrators had started throwing rocks at the soldiers from a distance. Some of the soldiers opened fire after demonstrators began to take down a fence (one of the witnesses said it was the outer one of two fences on the perimeter of the airport runway). The witnesses reported that, throughout the confrontation, the sound of gunshots came exclusively from the direction of the soldiers.
One witness stated that he observed at least two soldiers come through the fence and shoot their weapons into the crowd, at the level at which the people were running. The other reported that he observed a soldier deliberately and methodically aiming and shooting his rifle at demonstrators in the crowd.
These accounts from witnesses are supported by photos and video footage taken at the scene. The images show demonstrators running and throwing themselves behind walls and other objects, apparently seeking shelter from gunfire. (After the shooting, one of the witnesses said he observed bullet holes on the walls behind which many of the demonstrators were taking shelter.) Other demonstrators are seen in the images throwing rocks at the soldiers. In the video, the sound of shooting goes on intermittently for approximately 10 minutes. Some of the images appear to show soldiers firing their weapons at the crowd. They show the body of the one person whose death has been confirmed, a teenager whose name is reported to be Isi Obed Murillo.
According to multiple news reports, the boy died from a gunshot wound to the head. The father of the victim was at the demonstration and is reported to have said that he had observed a soldier take aim and fire at the demonstrators.
Human Rights Watch pointed out that the visual evidence suggests that at least some of the soldiers were using live ammunition, not rubber bullets. The images appear to show that the weapons the soldiers were using were a mix of M-16 variants, which require adaptors to use rubber bullets. The images do not show such adaptors on the weapons. Images of brass casings left behind by the soldiers after the shooting also show that the casings were not crimped, as would ordinarily be the case with blanks, which would denote the use of rubber bullets.
Even if the army had used only rubber bullets, Human Rights Watch pointed out that rubber bullets may have lethal force. As a result, international standards require that they only be used in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury. In any case, rubber bullets are not meant to be fired in close quarters and should only be aimed below the waist, to incapacitate, as upper body shots have resulted in death. In this case, despite the rock-throwing, there would appear to have been no adequate justification for shooting rubber bullets into the crowd.
Human Rights Watch said that special measures would be required to ensure a serious investigation of the events to determine if soldiers did shoot into the crowd and the causes of the casualties. It called on the de facto government to give its consent to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to enter the country and conduct an independent investigation of this incident and other alleged abuses that have taken place in the aftermath of the coup d'etat on June 28. (The commission submitted a formal request to visit the country on June 30.)
"The Inter-American Commission would bring to the investigation the necessary independence and credibility that, in the wake of the coup, officials in the de facto government simply lack," said Vivanco.