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Updated 06/02/2009

Honduras News in Review—May 1-31, 2009

Para títulos en español con sus enlaces correspondientes ver al fondo de la página.

1. Inter-American Court of Human Rights convicts Honduras in murder of environmental activist
2. Police capture suspected killers of labor leader Altagracia Fuentes and four others
3. Journalists kidnapped, human rights defenders decry persistent threats to journalists and press freedom
4. Police officers arrested for illegally detaining journalist
5. Paraguayan strongman abruptly ends Honduran exile
6. Major earthquake jolts Honduras
7. Congressional expropriation decree brings resolution to longstanding land-rights struggle
8. Amnesty International annual report highlights attacks on human rights, labor leaders
9. NGO laments state of freedom of expression in annual report
10. Anti-hunger campaign targets the country's most vulnerable

1. Inter-American Court of Human Rights convicts Honduras in murder of environmental activist

In its first-ever ruling on the killing of an environmental activist, the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights on May 6 found the Honduran government responsible for the murder of activist Blanca Jeanette Kawas Fernández. President of the Foundation for the Protection of Lancetilla, Punta Sal y Texiguat, Kawas was shot to death in her Tela home on Feb. 6, 1995, apparently in connection to her opposition to the exploitation of forestlands in nearby Punta Sal, which is home to some 1,500 Afro-descendant Garifuna people. Hers was the first of a string of seven murders of environmental activists in the Olancho region.

In its ruling, the court found that although Kawas was murdered under orders from "private interests, … this act was facilitated by the intervention of … government agents," that "at least one agent of the state participated in the events that ended Kawas' life and that these acts were motivated by [her] work in environmental protection." The court cited violations of sections of the American Convention on Human Rights guaranteeing the right to life and to personal safety, and noted that after Kawas' death, Honduras committed serious omissions in its investigations, thus impeding the plaintiff's ability to learn the truth of what happened.

The case was brought before the Inter-American court in 2002 by representatives of the nongovernmental Center for Justice and International Law and the Honduran Team for Reflection, Research and Communication. The court ordered the state of Honduras to pay the Kawas family compensation for material and nonmaterial damages and expenses, to complete its investigation of the crime, and to conduct public acts to honor Kawas. It also ordered the implementation of a national campaign to raise awareness of the importance of the work of environmental defenders and the contributions they make to human rights. [Revistazo, 5/7/09; Adital, 5/8/09; AP Spanish, 5/12/09; past story: HNR, 3/1-31/08]

2. Police capture suspected killers of labor leader Altagracia Fuentes and four others

On May 4, agents of the National Directorate of Criminal Investigations and the Preventative Police apprehended gang members Alexander Armando Reyes Ferrera and Elmer Alberto Orellana Dubón, wanted for the April 2008 murder of labor leader Altagracia Fuentes and her companions Virginia García and Juan Bautista. The men are also linked to the November 2008 murder of Mario Fernando Hernández Bonilla, alternate vice president of the National Congress, and the December 2008 murder of police subcommissioner Marco Tulio Reyes. Police believe Reyes Ferrera to have been acting as the head of the Mara 18 gang since the April death of Selvin Omar Fúnez, the gang's previous leader. At the time of the capture, police also seized weapons including an AK-47 rifle, a 9 mm gun, and a bulletproof vest. [La Tribuna, 5/5/09; past story: HNR, 1/15-31/09]

3. Journalists kidnapped, human rights defenders decry persistent threats to journalists and press freedom

On May 15, armed gunmen kidnapped journalist Andrés Torres, host of a popular radio news program, along with his driver Carlos Hernández and one unidentified person. The latter two were released a day later, but the 71-year-old journalist, a former National Party deputy and vice mayor of Tegucigalpa, remains missing, despite intensive government efforts to find him. His kidnappers have not come forward with a ransom request. Torres’ kidnapping marks the second such crime against a journalist this year: Bernardo Rivera Paz, a retired newspaperman and former Liberal Party deputy, was kidnapped on March 15 and is suspected dead.

Journalists and human rights defenders have been rallying to the cause of these two men, and protesting more generally the “state of chaos” that the profession is in, according to Elán Reyes, president of the Journalists' Association of Honduras. “To be right and say it out loud in the press is highly dangerous,” said Renato Álvarez, a television journalist, as he was being honored recently with the “Alvaro Contreras” prize, the country’s highest for the profession. A few days earlier, in conversation with Reyes on his show, Álvarez had said that “the majority of journalists aren’t rich; [the kidnappers] are looking to intimidate, to cause self-censure. It’s a bad message to send.” Reporters Without Frontiers has decried the recent trend, which includes the deaths of two journalists since the beginning of the year. National Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio tied the precarious position of the press to the general state of insecurity in the country. He said there are forces at work “that are trying to terrorize the media, [individual] journalists, congressional deputies, and those of us who defend freedom of expression, transparency in public works, and all of us who speak out against insecurity and corruption.”

According to reporter Vilma Gloria Rosales, the problem is a national press that has failed in its duty to be independent, instead bowing to political and business forces. “What’s happening right now with the [two] reporters,” she said, “is part of Honduras’ [longstanding] climate of insecurity, which has carried over from previous governments—without taking blame away from the current one; crises [like this one] aren’t created from one day to the next.” Dunia Montoya, reporter and coordinator of the Community Communication Association, added that there are two types of reporters: those who toe the party line, and those who don’t. “The problem is that the work being done by independent media is overshadowed by media monopolies. Independent media is being attacked because of the complicity, shameful behavior, and corruption that one sector of journalism is involved in,” she said. [Proceso Digital, 3/14/09; La Tribuna, 5/16/09; La Tribuna, 5/16/09; La Tribuna, 5/16/09; La Tribuna, 5/19/09; El Tiempo, 5/19/09; La Tribuna, 5/20/09; Revistazo, 5/21/09; La Tribuna, 5/26/09; Hondudiario, 5/26/09; ConexiHon, edition 115; past story, HNR, 4/1-30/09]

4. Police officers arrested for illegally detaining journalist

A Honduran judge issued warrants on May 27 for the arrest of three officers of the National Directorate of Criminal Investigation accused of illegally detaining La Tribuna reporter Martín Ramírez on Feb. 1. Ramírez was reporting at the scene of an automobile accident in the predawn hours and started taking photographs, when one of the officers, Dora Elvira Rivera Zúñiga, attempted to confiscate Ramírez's camera, even though he had identified himself as a journalist. When the reporter resisted, two other officers, Leonardo Ferrufino and Walter Castellanos, intervened—destroying the camera, assaulting and handcuffing Ramírez, and detaining him for three hours. The officers, who are charged with illegal detention and abuse of authority, were released on bail after having been detained a week prior; they will find out in 60 days whether they will go to trial. In 2007 Ramírez received death threats after publishing an article about organized crime and possible ties to the police.  [La Tribuna, 5/21/09; La Tribuna, 5/27/09]

5. Paraguayan strongman abruptly ends Honduran exile

Sabino Augusto Montanaro, former Paraguayan interior minister under the repressive 1954-1989 dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, broke the terms of his 20-year political asylum in Honduras and returned to Paraguay on May 1. Montanaro faces six pending trials for the disappearance and killing of political opponents during the 1970s and '80s; Paraguayan human rights activists have called him a "brutal torturer." When a military junta ousted Stroessner’s government in 1989, Montanaro found asylum in the Honduran embassy, which transferred him to Tegucigalpa, where he had lived since.

Montanaro's return caused a stir, with the Paraguayan foreign minister lodging a diplomatic protest against Honduras for not alerting authorities there. For their part, Honduran officials said that Montanaro had left the country without notifying them, thus violating the terms of his asylum. Adding to the controversy was that Montanaro allegedly traveled on an expired passport. Honduran officials called for an investigation to determine any negligence or wrongdoing on the part of the airline or immigration agents, while the Paraguayan minister alleged that Montanaro must have had help from higher up. In a formal response, Honduran Exterior Minister Patricia Rodas said she “deplored” the way in which Montanaro exited the country, saying, “under no circumstance would we have permitted or endorsed any situation that could cause harm of any kind to the Paraguayan people.”

No official reason has been given for Montanaro's return, but his lawyer suggested it was due to the man's old age, poor health and desire to come back to his native land, where he is likely too infirm to serve jail time. Paraguayan officials said Motanaro was being treated at a police hospital, where he is being held as a detainee. With Montanaro's unexpected return, Paraguay may now have the chance to move forward with pending prosecutions. The man underwent court-ordered psychiatric exams and brain scans at the end of May to determine his ability to stand trial, and a final determination is pending. [AFP, 5/1/09; AP, 5/4/09; La Prensa, 5/6/09; La Tribuna, 5/20/09]

6. Major earthquake jolts Honduras

A major earthquake struck Honduras May 28, killing seven people and injuring at least 40 others. The magnitude-7.3 quake, as reported by the U.S. Geological Survey, occurred around 2:30 a.m. local time and was centered about 80 miles off the Caribbean coast. In addition to the casualties, a reported 132 houses were destroyed, 409 homes damaged, and 67 other buildings, including schools, churches and hospitals, affected. A section of bridge across the Ulua River collapsed at the town of El Progreso, severing the country's link to its second-largest city, San Pedro Sula; authorities say it will take at least 14 months to rebuild the bridge. The heaviest damage was in the Sula Valley, where about 1 million people live. Marcos Burgos, the director of the country’s Permanent Emergency Commission, assured families who had lost their homes in the quake that they would receive economic support to rebuild. [Bloomberg, 5/28/09; El Tiempo, 5/29/09; El Heraldo, 5/30/09; U.S. Geological Survey]

7. Congressional expropriation decree brings resolution to longstanding land-rights struggle

The National Congress voted unanimously to approve a land-expropriation decree benefiting some 50,000 inhabitants in 17 communities of the Cofradía sector of the Cortes department, where campesinos have been engaged in a struggle to secure legal title to lands they have occupied for years. That six-year struggle has resulted in the murder of several campesino leaders, and many have continued to receive death threats. Mario Guerrero, a Land Commission advisor who helped draft the decree, said he now expected an end to the "war with landowners" and progress in the communities through access to credit to improve housing and development projects. As part of the expropriation process, community residents will pay the value per square meter or rod of allocated land, which will be placed in a trust fund; the courts will then determine the true landowners and reimburse them via the fund. The legislative decree will take effect once it is signed by President Manuel Zelaya and is published in the national gazette. [Revistazo, 5/27/09; past story: HNR, 11/1-15/08]

8. Amnesty International annual report highlights attacks on human rights, labor leaders

Threats and attacks against Honduran trade unionists and human rights defenders continued in 2008 and in most cases those responsible have not been held accountable, according to the "Amnesty International Report 2009: State of the World's Human Rights," released May 27. At least three human rights defenders and three unionists were killed and many others attacked or threatened, the report said, and 27 prisoners were killed during episodes of prison violence. It also noted that by late 2008 the government had yet to carry out a comprehensive investigation to clarify cases of enforced disappearances during the 1980s and '90s. [EFE, 5/27/09; Honduras section of Amnesty International Report 2009]

9. NGO laments state of freedom of expression in annual report

Mainstream media do not contribute to democracy or transparency in Honduras, according to the sixth "National Report on the Right to Information and Freedom of Expression," published annually by the nongovernmental Committee for Free Expression (C-LIBRE). Respect for freedom of expression did not improve in 2008, the report said, nor is it expected to improve this year, when national elections may cause greater control and manipulation of information. The report noted continuing intimidation, death threats and assaults on reporters in 2008. It raised concern regarding official control over the national press and excessive spending on government advertising, including more than 5 million lempiras on campaigns including the promotion of the Bolivaran Alternative for the Americas in mid-2008. The report complained that there was a strong tendency on the part of many journalists of the mainstream media to seek personal gain, rather than give attention to the country's corruption problems. It also criticized President Manuel Zelaya for lashing out against the media for not covering events "to his liking." [Revistazo, 5/28/09]

10. Anti-hunger campaign targets the country's most vulnerable

More than 200,000 children under five years and about 50,000 lactating women in Honduras suffer some degree of malnutrition, World Food Program Deputy Director Francisco Salinas said during the official launch of the "Zero Hunger 2009" campaign on May 27. As part of the campaign, for the fifth consecutive year, various governmental, civil and international institutions will participate in a march on June 7 to raise funds for those most in need. Salinas said a successful campaign would require about 100 million lempiras ($5.2 million), but so far they had only 15 million lempiras with which to work with Public Health, accompanied by another 28 million lempiras that the World Food Program will allocate directly to serve children under five and lactating mothers. [La Tribuna, 5/28/09]

1. CIDH condenó al Estado hondureño por asesinato de Janeth Kawas [Revistazo, 5/7/09; Adital, 5/8/09; AP Spanish, 5/12/09; past story: HNR, 3/1-31/08]
2. Capturan jefe de temida pandilla vinculado a muerte de Altagraci
a
[La Tribuna, 5/5/09; past story: HNR, 1/15-31/09]
3. Dos periodistas secuestrados, defensores de derechos humanos denuncian las amenazas a los periodistas y la libertad de prensa
[Proceso Digital, 3/14/09; La Tribuna, 5/16/09; La Tribuna, 5/16/09; La Tribuna, 5/16/09; La Tribuna, 5/19/09; El Tiempo, 5/19/09; La Tribuna, 5/20/09; Revistazo, 5/21/09; La Tribuna, 5/26/09; Hondudiario, 5/26/09; ConexiHon, edition 115; past story, HNR, 4/1-30/09]
4. Agentes a depósito por agredir a periodista de La Tribuna
[La Tribuna, 5/21/09; La Tribuna, 5/27/09]
5. Ex ministro paraguayo Sabino Montanaro se entrega a la justicia
[AFP, 5/1/09; AP, 5/4/09; La Prensa, 5/6/09; La Tribuna, 5/20/09]
6. Gran terremoto sacudidas Honduras
[Bloomberg, 5/28/09; El Tiempo, 5/29/09; El Heraldo, 5/30/09; U.S. Geological Survey]
7. Congreso Nacional decreta la expropiación de 17 colonias de Cofradía
[Revistazo, 5/27/09; past story: HNR, 11/1-15/08]
8. Amnistía Internacional señala continuas agresiones en Honduras
[EFE, 5/27/09; Honduras section of Amnesty International Report 2009]
9. Medios tradicionales contribuyen a que país continúe sumergido en la corrupción
[Revistazo, 5/28/09]
10. Lanzan campaña contra el hambre
[La Tribuna, 5/28/09]

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