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Updated 08/05/2009

Honduras News in Review—June 1-July 10, 2009

1. Eleven days after coup, Honduras remains in turmoil

Eleven days after the predawn arrest and exile of Honduras’ elected president Manuel Zelaya plunged the country into deep turmoil, little is settled. Zelaya has been visiting countries throughout the region, trying to rally the Organization of American States, the United Nations and individual Latin American leaders to his cause. At the same time, the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti has been making appeals of its own—through government envoys and media proxies—in a quest to legitimize its power in the eyes of the world. Last week saw a standoff between the OAS and Micheletti, as the former took steps to sanction the latter, who in turn withdrew from the organization.

Censorship of television and radio stations sympathetic to Zelaya persists, and the interim government continues to enforce a curfew, threatening arrest to anyone on the streets at night. On July 1, Micheletti issued a “state of exception” decree, suspending during the curfew hours a number of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties—including freedom of association and the right to peaceful protest—and permitting authorities to detain citizens without charge beyond the constitutional limit of 24 hours.

Human Rights Commissioner Ramón Custodio, an early supporter of the Zelaya ouster, said on July 7 that the only people detained under the decree thus far were those caught violating the curfew. Custodio dismissed concerns by the United Nations, which called on Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubí to reinstate civil liberties and defend human rights, and offering funding to do so. Liberal Party deputy Rolando Dubón said the measures in the decree were necessary because of the “suspicion that there are many foreign nationals in Honduras and the fear that they could be attempting actions against the public and the new government.”

Former army captain Billy Joya has assumed the role of security adviser in Micheletti's cabinet, raising concerns among the human rights community of a return to the military repression of two decades ago. Joya is accused of the illegal detention, torture and murder of civilians in the 1980s, when he was a commanding officer in the military intelligence Batallion 3-16. (In 2006, Security Minister Álvaro Romero contracted Joya as a security adviser—prompting the Comittee for Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared to ask Zelaya to rescind the contract—but the details and duration of his role then are unclear.)

Zelaya attempted to return to the country by airplane on July 5, a move he had postponed from earlier in the week, as he waited for the OAS to hold its talks in country. U.N. General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, Nicaragua’s former minister for foreign affairs, accompanied the exiled president. Another plane carried an entourage of support, including Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Paraguayan leader Fernando Lugo.

The event drew large crowds to Tocontín Airport, where many of them clashed violently with the military when the planes came into view. The protesters’ rocks were met with tear gas and reportedly some live ammunition. According to MISF associate producer Oscar Estrada, who has been following events on the ground in Honduras, Human Rights Commissioner Custodio told the press that the bullets used by the army Sunday were rubber bullets, but the human rights prosecutor, in inspecting the scene, found 170 M-16 bullet casings. The first reported death in this crisis—possibly two—occurred during the clash, along with numerous injuries. The de facto government's foreign minister attributed the deaths to shooting from other demonstrators and said that security forces had "no responsibility." However, eyewitness testimony, photos and video footage support the allegation that troops fired on unarmed demonstrators.

The crisis has resulted in bad economic news for Honduras, as the World Bank has suspended all its lending to the country, which is already one of the poorest in the region. The United States has pulled military support, and has "taken some actions to hit the pause button … on assistance programs that we would be legally required to terminate," U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said, referring to the United States’ policy to halt aid in the event of a military coup.

Meanwhile, daily protests in the streets have reflected support for both men and, increasingly, a third stream, calling for a peaceful resolution by the rule of law, above all. Caravans of people from around the country have been traveling to Tegucigalpa to voice their opinions, and some have encountered military roadblocks. Last week, reportedly in the city of Limones, Honduran soldiers shot out the tires of a bus full of Zelaya supporters. On July 7, First Lady Xiomara Castro, who has been under the protection of the U.S. Embassy since her husband's expulsion from the country, joined Zelaya supporters in their daily march, telling the press that she could no longer hide while people were out risking their lives for democracy.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has succeeded in attracting both presidents to a dialogue, mediated by Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, scheduled to take place July 9. Zelaya has not backed off from his desire to return to the country by whatever means necessary, while Micheletti has repeatedly stated that Zelaya will not be allowed return as a result of these talks. Both sides have softened their rhetoric leading up to the announcement of the dialogue, but it is still not at all clear what will come from it. [Cofadeh, 4/6/06; Bloomberg, 6/30/09; La Prensa, 7/1/09; Foreign Policy in Focus, 7/1/09; CNN, 7/2/09; WOLA, 7/2/09; CNN, 7/3/09; Wash Post, 7/5/09; WSJ, 7/6/09; Miami Herald, 7/7/09; Miami Herald, 7/7/09; Hondudiario, 7/7/09; La Tribuna, 7/7/09; Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 7/7/09; AP, 7/8/09; Human Rights Watch, 7/8/09]

 2. OAS, Hillary Clinton come to Honduras, protesters draw police crackdown

The Organization of American States convened its 39th General Assembly in San Pedro Sula on June 2, with Cuba’s readmission to the organization at the top of an ambitious agenda and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton serving as de facto celebrity figure. The OAS finally passed the historic, if largely symbolic, resolution after hours of debate; Cuba, whose membership in the 34-nation hemispheric body had been suspended in 1962, has declined to rejoin. Many protesters wanted to make their voices heard while the international body—and specifically Clinton—were in town, and police forces reportedly clamped down on them forcefully. Family and friends of kidnapped journalist Bernardo Rivera Paz were reportedly beaten and arrested while protesting government inaction on his behalf. [La Tribuna, 6/2/09; Honduras Laboral/Comun Noticias, 6/3/09; NY Times, 6/3/09; past story: HNR, 5/1-31/09, 5/1-31/09]

3. Gunmen briefly take over newspaper’s offices

Masked gunmen on June 8 kicked down the door to the offices of Hondudiario, an independent online newspaper, fired shots and held its 37 employees hostage for about 30 minutes while they ransacked the office and destroyed all Internet connections. The gunmen confiscated the staff's wallets, but later discarded them without taking any money; a motorcycle belonging to the news organization was the only item stolen. Arístides Aceituno, executive director of the paper, called the attack no mere act of delinquency but rather an attempt at harassment and intimidation “from people within the government that haven’t taken well to us.” It took at least 20 minutes for police to respond to cell phone calls to the emergency system, and the news organization said officers later expressed skepticism over the account of events. Aceituno had also sent a text message directly to President Manuel Zelaya to ask for help. Eight days prior, several gunmen followed a reporter into the same building and robbed him of his possessions. At the time this was considered an isolated incident, but Hondudiario staff said they now believe the two events might be related.

The leadership of the paper filed a formal complaint with the National Commission for Human Rights of Honduras and the Public Ministry, asking for protection. Special human rights prosecutor Sandra Ponce is reportedly working on the case. Hondudiario is part of the Professional Communication Services Corp. (Seproc), a company that has dedicated 12 years to independent news monitoring. Seproc shares offices with Hondudiario, and its staff were also held hostage. [Hondudiario, 6/8/09; El Tiempo, 6/9/09; Hondudiario, 6/9/09; La Tribuna, 6/12/09]

4. Kidnapped journalist released, says crime not related to his profession

After being held captive for 18 days, kidnapped journalist Andrés Torres was set free in the early morning hours of June 2. The reporter, 72 and living with high blood pressure and diabetes, was gaunt but well and in good humor. In an interview immediately following his release, Torres discarded the possibility that his kidnapping was tied to his profession. “When they first had me in the house,” he said, “they turned on the TV and saw the news report of my kidnapping. When they realized, they rubbed their hands together and said, ‘This one’s famous!’” Torres’ release was negotiated by his brother, Mario, for several days, and happened only after he paid the captors an undisclosed sum of money. Police did not participate in the rescue. [La Tribuna, 6/2/09; La Tribuna, 6/3/09; La Tribuna, 6/3/09; past story: HNR, 5/1-31/09]

5. Journalist’s alleged killer freed

The alleged killer of journalist and satirical humorist Carlos Manuel Salgado was set free on the grounds of insufficient evidence on June 9 after 11 months in prison. German David Almendárez Amador was released despite early signs that a solid case could be brought against him, including the testimony of a protected witness. Salgado was killed on Oct. 18, 2007, while leaving the Radio Cadena Voces station; his is among the unsolved cases of violence against journalists closely followed by international human rights organizations. [El Heraldo, 6/10/09; past story: HNR, 3/31/08]

6. Aftershocks continue to rock Honduras, prompt state of emergency

Following last month’s magnitude-7.3 earthquake near La Ceiba, roughly 70 measurable seismic events—aftershocks and standalone quakes—have shaken Honduras, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Most of these went unfelt, but some have caused additional damage as the country cleans up after the La Ceiba quake, which as of June 4 had left seven people dead and 17 wounded, according to the Permanent Commission on Contingencies (Copeco). Twelve public buildings, seven industrial parks, eight bridges, 19 churches, and eight major roads were damaged, while the tally of houses damaged or destroyed had climbed to nearly 1,000 by Copeco’s estimates on June 18. In the El Juncal sector, in Olanchito, aftershocks a week later left 80 people homeless. Additional strong aftershocks on June 7 and June 15, measuring 5.7 and 5.5, respectively, prompted government officials to declare a state of emergency. The Ministry of Education reported that 300 schools have been damaged and 50 more totally destroyed in the wake of all this activity. [La Tribuna, 6/4/09; La Tribuna, 6/5/09; El Tiempo, 6/10/09; La Tribuna, 6/16/09; La Tribuna, 6/18/09]

7. Colonel summoned on charges of illegal logging

On June 13, special prosecutor for the environment Aldo Santos summoned Col. José Santos Reyes Argueta to appear in the case of an illegal logging purchase and transport that occurred on Feb. 18. As the officer that gave the order, Reyes is considered responsible for the act, as are his two subordinates, Sgt. Luis Antonio Pérez and Cpl. Dagoberto Osorio Vásquez, who carried out the illegal order. The latter two were stopped in the predawn hours of Feb. 18 with a load of mahogany without the proper permit. Wood transport can only be conducted between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. The receipts proffered to show the military personnel’s innocence have raised questions about the wood’s provenance, still strongly suspected to be illegal, according to Santos. The investigation is still proceeding. Sgt. Pérez and Cpl. Vásquez are already under arrest. Col. Reyes was relieved of his command shortly after the incident. [La Tribuna, 6/13/09; past story: HNR, 2/28/09]

8. Other news in brief

Honduras dropped eight places to 112 out of 144 countries in Vision of Humanity’s 2009 Global Peace Index—measuring both internal and external factors—which marks the first time the country finds itself in the bottom quartile of countries surveyed. [La Tribuna, 6/12/09]

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