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Honduras: Stop Efforts to Discredit Human Rights Prosecutors

Lack of Cooperation by Police Undermines Abuse Investigations

(Washington, DC) - The Lobo administration needs to ensure that government officials stop attacking the credibility of human rights prosecutors, Human Rights Watch said today. President Porfirio Lobo also should direct security forces to cooperate fully with abuse investigations, Human Rights Watch said.

On May 26, 2011, Deputy Secretary of Security Armando Calidonio publicly criticized Sandra Ponce, the head of the Human Rights Unit in the Attorney General's Office, for opening an investigation into the deaths of seven alleged youth gang members in Ciudad Planeta, near San Pedro Sula. Press accounts said that there was a confrontation with the police and that the alleged gang members were armed. Since Calidonio's public statements, Ponce has received a number of intimidating messages.

"It's bad enough that law enforcement agents have been unwilling to cooperate with ongoing investigations into alleged abuses," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "But open hostility by senior government officials puts human rights prosecutors at risk and is absolutely unacceptable."

On May 25, hours after the incident in Ciudad Planeta, the Human Rights Unit requested a detailed report about the events from the security secretary, including the names of police officers who participated in the operation. The prosecutors also asked to inspect the firearms used by the police. The unit's mandate is to investigate potential abuses committed by police and military officers.

Calidonio said during an appearance on a Honduras National Radio show the following day that the Ciudad Planeta investigation showed "an obsession with the police" and that human rights prosecutors would be responsible for "any attack [against] the police." News media reported that Héctor Iván Mejía Velásquez, the head of the preventive police of San Pedro Sula, also dismissed the investigation as "unfair."

Ponce told Human Rights Watch that this public vilification of the prosecutors had generated a "campaign of hatred" and intimidation. Several blackberry messages that circulated in Honduras criticized Ponce for questioning the work of the police. One said that she was "persecuting police officers" and continued, "Who will protect our children now that the police cannot defend themselves?"

Dozens of readers commenting on newspaper articles that described the incident also criticized Ponce, calling her a "crazy old lady" who defends delinquents, and threatening her. In one comment, for instance, the reader states, "I wish someone would kill one of your family members so you can see how it feels... I hate you and take care of yourself old lady because you have a few days left."

On May 28, Ponce asked Attorney General Luis Rubí to adopt measures to ensure the safety of human rights prosecutors, but she has received no response to address this problem. Honduras's regional and international legal obligations require that it investigate any potential abuse of lethal force by state forces, and ensure that those who discharge this obligation are safe from reprisal or repercussion as a result of their work. State agents who reject or who do not respect this obligation should be held to account, Human Rights Watch said.

In December 2010, Human Rights Watch released a report, "After the Coup: Ongoing Violence, Intimidation, and Impunity in Honduras," documenting the government's failure to ensure accountability for abuses committed under the country's de facto government in 2009, as well as ongoing attacks against journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists. The report documents several obstacles faced by the Human Rights Unit, including the lack of collaboration by law enforcement agents.

"If President Lobo wants to send the right message to the international community at a time when Honduras's democratic credentials are being evaluated, he needs to immediately reject the attempts to vilify prosecutors and ensure that they receive full cooperation from his government," Vivanco said.

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