(Washington DC) - Six months after President Porfirio Lobo took office, Honduras has made little progress toward addressing the serious human rights abuses since the 2009 coup, Human Rights Watch said today. Threats and attacks against journalists and the political opposition have fostered a climate of intimidation, while impunity for abuses remains the norm.
"Violent attacks on journalists and political opponents have had a profound chilling effect on basic freedoms in Honduras," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "When journalists stop reporting, citizens abandon political activities, and judges fear being fired for their rulings, the building blocks of democratic society are at grave risk."
Human Rights Watch called on the Honduran government to provide protection to journalists and members of the political opposition, prosecute people responsible for human rights abuses, and restore the independence of the judiciary.
A Climate of Intimidation
At least eight journalists and ten members of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP)-a political group that opposed the 2009 coup and advocated the reinstatement of the ousted president, Manuel Zelaya-have been killed since President Lobo assumed power on January 27, 2010.
There has also been a significant increase in threats against journalists and opposition members during this period, according to justice officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch.
For example, José Oswaldo Martínez, a journalist with Radio Uno in San Pedro Sula, told Human Rights Watch that he had received repeated death threats in phone calls, text messages, and emails, including one in July that said: "Because you won't stop talking about that dog Zelaya, we are going to shut your mouth with a bullet."
On June 15, Luis Arturo Mondragón, the news director for Channel 19 in El Paraíso, was shot to death as he left the station. He had reportedly received death threats by phone.
Oslin Obando Cáceres, a 22-year-old taxi driver from Tela who was an active member of the FNRP, has been missing since June 13 and is feared dead. In the weeks before he disappeared, Obando and his family had received repeated death threats for their political activities.
In response to these and other attacks and threats, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has issued 26 "precautionary measures" (medidas cautelares) during the current administration to journalists, members of the political opposition, and their families, instructing the Honduran government to provide them with protection. However, efforts by Honduras to comply with these measures have been "few, late in coming, and in some cases nonexistent," the commission said in a June report.
As evidence of the government's ineffective compliance, the commission cited the case of Nahún Palacios, a television station director in Tocoa, who had been issued "precautionary measures" after receiving numerous death threats. Palacios was killed by unidentified assailants as he drove home on March 14, and the commission strongly criticized the Honduran government's failure to protect him. Several other journalists and members of the FNRP who have been issued "precautionary measures" told Human Rights Watch that the government had done nothing to provide Palacios protection.
The motives for the attacks on specific journalists are not always evident; some -- but not all -- appear to have been linked to their criticism of the 2009 coup. However, together with the violence against the political opposition, these threats and attacks have generated a climate of intimidation that is having a severe chilling effect on exercising the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Honduras, Human Rights Watch said.
A radio journalist told Human Rights Watch that a colleague left his job at their station in July after receiving repeated death threats for his political views. Similarly, a political opposition member interviewed by Human Rights Watch said she felt compelled to abandon her political activities after she and her daughters were accosted by armed men in March. A FNRP member who was shot in the leg during an assassination attempt told Human Rights Watch that he also stopped participating in political activities as a result of the attack. In each of these cases, as well as several others documented by Human Rights Watch, individuals asked that their names not be used for fear of reprisals.
The climate of intimidation in Honduras has been compounded by the lack of accountability for abuses committed in the aftermath of the 2009 coup. To date, there has not been a single conviction of those responsible for the abuses documented by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and other local and international human rights organizations.
On January 27, the government passed an amnesty decree for political crimes committed during the 2009 coup. While the decree explicitly prohibits amnesty for human rights abuses, the ambiguous language of the law-particularly with respect to amnesty for "abuses of authority"-leaves open the possibility of overly broad application. Honduras is party to several international human rights treaties that impose an obligation to investigate and prosecute violators as appropriate, as well as to guarantee victims an effective legal remedy, including justice, truth, and adequate reparations.
While the creation this year of a special human rights prosecutor's office was a positive step, prosecutors in the office told Human Rights Watch that the office lacks the resources and personnel needed to investigate the enormous number of complaints it has received. Moreover, victims and witnesses of attacks often prefer to remain silent, out of fear for their security and that of their families, making investigations more difficult.
Firings of Judges
The May dismissal of four lower-court judges who challenged the legality of the 2009 coup has severely damaged the credibility of the Honduran judiciary.
The Supreme Court removed Judge Ramón Barrios for publicly criticizing a June 2009 Supreme Court ruling that validated the coup. Judge Guillermo López Lone, the president of Judges for Democracy, and Judge Luis Chévez de la Rocha were removed for participating in public demonstrations calling for Zelaya to be reinstated. And Judge Thirza Flores Lanza was removed for filing two legal motions on behalf of Zelaya.
The judges presented challenges (escritos de impugnación) to the Council of the Judiciary (Consejo de la Carrera Judicial), a review body appointed by the Supreme Court, on June 28, and they have appealed to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights to review their case.
Judge López told Human Rights Watch that, since his dismissal, several judges have confided in him that the fear of dismissal by the government influences their judicial decision-making. A prosecutor from the human rights prosecutor's office said fellow prosecutors had expressed the same concern.
"Honduras has made little progress toward restoring the rule of law since the coup," Vivanco said. "The government should protect journalists and political opposition members who receive threats, support the vigorous investigation and prosecution of abuses, and reaffirm the independence of its judges."