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(New York) – Honduran government officials should publicly repudiate recent criticism of two leaders of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Human Rights Watch said today. The officials should protect the right to speak out about human rights abuses and to express opinions and concerns about the country’s upcoming elections.

On a November 5, 2013 episode of the Honduran television talk show “Frente a Frente,” the host, Renato Álvarez, read from what he said was a leaked diplomatic cable sent by Honduras’s ambassador to the United States, Jorge Ramos Hernández Alcerro, to President Porfirio Lobo. The alleged cable contained negative comments about the leaders’ participation in a panel discussion in Washington. The Lobo administration has neither affirmed nor denied the authenticity of the cable.

“If the cable is real, it would show a cynical disregard by a senior Honduran official for the rights and welfare of community leaders in a country afflicted by political violence,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Whatever its provenance, the government should unequivocally repudiate the views the cable expresses and emphasize that the right to free expression includes criticizing the electoral process and human rights conditions, whether it be in Honduras or before members and staff of the US Congress.”

On the program, Álvarez said that the alleged cable provided analysis of an October 29 panel discussion in Washington co-sponsored by a United States congressional caucus about the upcoming elections in Honduras and El Salvador. The Honduran elections are scheduled for November 24.

Among the panelists were the coordinators of two Honduran NGOs: Bertha Oliva of the Committee of the Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), a human rights group, and Victor Fernandez of the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ), an organization dedicated to fighting corruption.

In the broadcast, the show’s host read at length from the alleged cable, including the following sentence: “The participation of Bertha Oliva and Victor Fernandez proves the conspiracy of NGOs and Honduran people against the electoral process in Honduras.”

The alleged cable also summarized Oliva’s comments on the panel, including that human rights violations, corruption, and impunity are widespread in Honduras and that members of an opposition political party had been persecuted. The cable also noted that Oliva had called during the panel for a break from the two-party political system in Honduras.

After reading from the alleged cable, the host asked the four guests on the program for their comments. Three of them are candidates for congressional seats in the upcoming election, and the other is a current member of congress running for re-election. All four strongly criticized Oliva’s comments and disparaged her for expressing her views about the election.

Human rights defenders in Honduras are subject to persistent violence and threats. Following the September 2012 killing of a prominent human rights defender and lawyer, Antonio Trejo, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said: “There is a menacing climate of insecurity and violence in Honduras, and human rights defenders have been targets of threats, harassment, physical assault, and murder. The impunity that surrounds these violations is unacceptable.” The high commissioner also called on the government of Honduras to “urgently adopt measures to address the vulnerability of human rights defenders.”

Oliva has twice been granted “precautionary” protection measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Commission, in 1999 and 2009.

“Voicing opinions on issues of national importance – whether human rights conditions or political choices – is a critical part of a democratic society and a right that should be fully protected by the government,” Vivanco said. “Mischaracterizing the expression of opinions as an effort to undermine the electoral process, particularly in an environment where civil society leaders already face threats and attacks, only puts them at greater risk.”

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