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Updated 05/17/2010

Honduras News in Review—April 2010

Editor's note: The Honduran Human Rights Platform, an association of major human rights organizations in Honduras, was scheduled to give a press conference on the alternate truth commission this morning. Details will be published in the next edition of the Honduras News in Review.

1. Truth Commission to launch May 4

2. Aguán land dispute resolution comes at high price
3. Two more reporters killed
4. Activists, reporters threatened
5. Resistance movement kicks off million-signature constitutional referendum, activist kidnapped and interrogated
6. IACHR puts Honduras on its human rights "black list"
7. More generals in charge of civilian posts
8. Judge sets free officials accused of abuses in media shutdowns
9. Diplomacy update: Honduras gains support for reintegration into international community
10. U.S. policy update: U.S. maintains support for Lobo government
11. Upcoming delegation to Honduras

1. Truth Commission to launch May 4

Amid continuing controversy, the Honduras Truth Commission is set to begin May 4. An executive decree (Spanish version; English version), which spells out the mandate under which the commission will operate, was published just three days before the commission’s inauguration and raises more questions while confirming the fears and criticisms of the Honduran resistance and the Human Rights Platform.

Speaking on April 8, Foreign Minister Mario Canahuati said the commission's work would be independent of the Honduran government, as even funding would come from countries like Canada, the United States, Spain, Japan and possibly Sweden, with technical assistance from the Organization of American States. “The [Honduran] government is only serving as a facilitator and coordinator for this project; there is absolute independence for the members of the commission,” he said. However, the terms of the published decree seem to have been established at the sole discretion of the Lobo administration, which also chose the commissioners who will serve, and funding details have yet to be released.

The decree does not meet the “Minimal Conditions for a Meaningful Exercise in Investigating the Past” as laid out by the Center for Justice and International Law (Cejil), which include recommendations that “the mandate of the commission must be clearly defined, sufficiently broad, and must be centered around the victims of human rights violations." According to Cejil, the commission "should have the authority to determine the facts and assign responsibility of human rights violations as well as the structural weaknesses that allowed the coup to take place” and that “victims and organizations of civil society should be widely consulted on the design, implementation and evaluation of the work of the truth commission in order for it to have the legitimacy needed to produce reconciliation.”

The decree limits the scope of the Truth Commission to the events surrounding former President Manuel Zelaya’s ouster, focusing on actions by his government and the post-coup de facto government only in that context. It omits any mention of human rights abuses during the “political crisis” that followed the coup, bringing into relief the sentiment expressed by José Javier Acevedo, interim director of the Center for the Investigation and Promotion of Human Rights (Ciprodeh), in an interview with MISF: “How can you have a [Truth Commission] without consulting the victims? There hasn't been a clarification of who the actors or victims even are, nor has the resistance been brought into the conversation.”

The commission will include three international and two national members: former Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein; Michael Kerlin, former Canadian ambassador to the United States and Cuba; María Amadilia Zavala Valladares, former Peruvian minister of justice; Julieta Castellanos, the current provost of the National Autonomous University of Honduras; and former provost Jorge Omar Casco. They will be assisted by technical secretary Sergio Membreño, also a Honduran academic.

The choice of commissioners has been widely criticized, including by Cejil’s Marcia Aguiluz, who noted in an interview with MISF, “The commissioners have been chosen by President Lobo and we don’t know the criteria he used for that process. He requested someone from Peru and someone from Canada—those are the states that didn’t criticize the coup, so we think that’s why he made those requests. Our main concern on those commissioners mentioned is that there are no profiles of them being involved with human rights concerns; we don’t have any record of their human rights knowledge or any related field.” Casellanos and Casco are also reportedly well known for their affiliation with the National Party.

The decree specifies that after submitting its final report, the commission should "separate those documents and materials that are confidential
in character" to remain sealed for 10 years, after which time they will become part of the archive of Honduras' national library.
 
According to the executive decree, the commission will last for at least eight months. Upon its conclusion, Honduran President Porfírio Lobo said, “if need be, we will revise some laws to avoid a repeat of these events,” adding that he did not see a need for the same to be done constitutionally.

While many human rights organizations have yet to issue statements following the publication of the decree this weekend, Reina Rivera, human rights defender and former director of Ciprodeh, said there is an alternate Truth Commission in the works with international cooperation from prominent human rights figures in Latin America and beyond. The Human Rights Platform, an association of major human rights organizations in Honduras, was scheduled to give a press conference on the alternate truth commission this morning; no details had been reported as of this writing.

Acevedo, Rivera’s interim successor, said, “Ciprodeh doesn't believe that the Truth Commission [as it will be formulated] can act in any significant way. [An effective] Truth Commission needs to meet basic preconditions: (1) clear goals; (2) a widely confirmed constituency; (3) someone to carry out proper investigations based on its recommendations.” Acevedo said he thought the current commission lacked all three preconditions.

Aguiluz expressed concern about ongoing abuses amid plans for the Truth Commission: “People related to the resistance are being threatened in different ways, there have been deaths of [several] journalists, thousands of violations of human rights have been determined by the IACHR and OHCHR of the U.N., and then we see the level of impunity is practically 100 percent, so we are very concerned how these things are happening and that there is no real response from the official government institutions. Their message is that things are getting better, but on the contrary things are not changing, they are getting worse … There can’t be a Truth Commission if the government doesn’t have a real commitment to investigate.”

Aguiliz was also critical of the United States for its strong promotion of the Truth Commission in Honduras: "I think the [U.S.] role has to be to make sure all the conditions are met for a real Truth Commission in Honduras. Be careful not to promote a Truth Commission as the end itself, because a Truth Commission is a means for something else, something quite more important for Honduran society. It seems [the U.S. is] in a rush to promote it in order to show Honduras has complied with everything the international community has asked for. What they have to do is acknowledge if the conditions have or haven't been met and work on that ... Those conditions are not met now."

OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Isulza, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Latin America and the Caribbean Julissa Reynoso, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Craig Kelly, Truth Commission member Eduardo Stein, and OAS Secretary for Political Affairs Victor Rico have reportedly arrived in Tegucigalpa and will be present at the May 4 inauguration of the Truth Commission, which will be held at the Presidential Palace.

2. Aguán land dispute resolution comes at high price

On April 26, the campesinos of Lower Aguán finished their resettlement into lands granted them under an accord signed April 14 with President Porfírio Lobo, which effectively ended the ongoing dispute over the lands. Since January, thousands of residents have been forced to flee the disputed lands in the wake of violent military and police raids; scores of campesinos were injured or detained during the actions (see January, February and March HNRs) and one man was shot dead April 1. The accord grants 2,200 families of the Unified Campesino Movement of Aguan (MUCA) about 7,400 acres planted to oil palm immediately and another 7,400 unplanted acres within three months, conditional on the resettlement, plus an additional 2,500 planted and 9,900 unplanted acres in a year. Additionally, it commissions a study into whether the three landholders, Miguel Facussé Barjum, René Morales and Reinaldo Canales, exceed their limits on land holdings cultivated to palm oil production. Any excess would go to MUCA. Finally, the parties agreed to develop health, education and housing social projects in the area, and begin planning “the urgent need to generate a national debate over farm legislation.”
 
This progress, which Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (Codeh) President Andrés Pavon called “an historic and widely satisfactory achievement,” was not, however, without incident. In an urgent plea to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on April 13, Cofadeh presented a litany of abuses that had transpired before the agreement was signed, including the murder of two more MUCA activists, the movement of 2,500 troops with heavy equipment who proceeded to take control of all exits from the area as well as all movement within it, enforcing a curfew on local businesses and raiding MUCA members’ living quarters at predawn hours.

At least one report said that paramilitary forces, hired by the landholders, were training in the area under the supervision of Retired Capt. Billy Joya Amendola, an officer in Battalion 3-16, which kidnapped, tortured and
"disappeared" citizens during the 1980s. (See MISF Briefing on Honduras.)

The day of the signing, police and military arrested 40 campesinos, including the regional head of the National Agrarian Institute, Coronado Avila Mendoza, for “encroachment”—conviction of which would deny the participants access to the agreed lands. Tensions continued in the days after the agreement, but since seem to have eased. However, the deal for selling of lands is not yet over, as landholder Miguel Facussé said he had not been consulted on which lands to sell.
 
3. Two more reporters killed

On April 11, Luis Antonio Chévez Hernández, a radio personality in San Pedro Sula, was followed home from a nightclub and shot and killed along with his cousin, Julio César Chévez Peña. Police are still investigating the motive for the crime, but initial reports indicate the young men were involved in an argument at the club and perhaps lost their lives because of it.
 
On April 20, Jorge Alberto "Giorgino" Orellana was shot upon leaving the television station where he hosted a live current-events opinion program. He was a poet and columnist for a weekly cultural insert in the El Tiempo newspaper. Police arrested Jonathan Joseph Cockborn Delgado on May 1 in connection with the murder. Cockborn was captured on an outstanding arrest warrant from 2007 and "plainly identified as the perpetrator of Georgino's murder," according to Armando Calidonio, vice minister of security.

These latest deaths bring to seven the count of reporters murdered in 2010. Pineda Reyes Elán, president of the Journalists Association of Honduras, said, "In order for journalists to stay alive, they must self-censor so that they don't become victims." The United Nations, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Cejil issued new calls to investigate the ongoing assault on the freedom of the press. The Inter American Press Association also put forth recommendations, including the creation of an international body to investigate crimes against press freedoms and foster legal and judicial reforms that deal with those crimes.

No arrests have been made in the killings, but Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez said he is making progress in two investigations; meanwhile journalists are wearing bulletproof vests. On April 26, OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza said a delegation from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission will travel to Honduras in May to investigate whether the killings were politically motivated or related to the journalists' work. Insulza said Honduran President Porfírio Lobo has agreed to the visit.

4. Activists, reporters threatened

Amnesty International reported that Rosa Margarita Vargas, a schoolteacher and FRNP activist who has written articles criticizing the coup, has received credible threats to her life for her involvement in the resistance. Vargas teaches at the school where José Manuel Flores Arguijo, also a resistance member, was killed last month. (See March HNR.) Between April 9 and 12, she received multiple phone calls warning her not to look into her colleague’s death. On April 11, neighbors at her former residence—which she vacated last December—told her that armed men were asking of her whereabouts. Amnesty urged immediate action.
 
Also on April 9, reporter Ricardo Emilio Oviedo Reyes, of Channel 40 in Tocoa, Colon, reported the station being shot at while he was inside. He said he has been the victim of intimidation and threats, primarily in the form of close surveillance by two unknown individuals, ever since the coup last year. On April 30, Amnesty International issued an Urgent Action alert on behalf of Oviedo and two other journalists, Jorge Otts Andersen and Gerardo Chévez, who have also been victims of threats in April.
 
Jaime Rodríguez, current president of the Teachers' Association of Secondary Education in Honduras (Copemh) reported to Cofadeh that he’s been receiving death threats via text message since March 24, a day after Flores’ death. Rodríguez said that he has no personal enemies, and that he’s sure the threats are due to association's involvement with the FRNP. Another Copemh educator, Alexis Vallecillos, who broadcasts the organization’s weekly radio show on Radio Globo, currently receives special protection mandated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for threats he has received since the coup.
 
The Society of Jesus in Honduras, a Jesuit entity known for its work with the poor and commitment toward social justice and equity, reported that Father Ismael Moreno, affectionately know as Padre Melo, and fellow Radio Progreso reporter Gerardo Chévez have received death threats for their involvement in the resistance. Padre Melo is the director of Radio Progreso and editor of ENVIO-Honduras, a political commentary magazine, as well as director of Reflection, Research and Communication Team of the Society of Jesus, an active voice of criticism of the post-coup repression. The communiqué indicates that the threat to Melo is due to his protection of Irma Melissa Villanueva, who was raped, allegedly by police, at a rally on Aug. 14, 2009. (See August HNR.) Padre Melo has been forced into hiding because of these threats.

On April 16, Radio Progreso added that all of its reporters have had threats to their security, and called for the government to fight against threats to freedom of expression, reiterating that their editorial line has always been—before and after the coup—based on the needs of the poor in the country.
 
On April 18, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (Copinh) reported that Anselmo Romero, activist leader with the FNRP in Lajas, Comayagua, along with other resistance activists in the area, had been shot at by “death squads” with large-caliber weapons and had their land invaded at least twice.

5. Resistance movement kicks off million-signature constitutional referendum, activist kidnapped and interrogated

On April 20, the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) organized a rally in Tegucigalpa to kick off the Consulta Popular, or referendum, on a constitutional assembly. FNRP leader Juan Barahona declared the movement’s goal of at least of million signatures by June 28, the first anniversary of Zelaya’s originally scheduled referendum and the resulting coup. “The Constituent Assembly is an urgent need, and the Honduran people demand it,” said Barahona. The leader ended his speech by reiterating the FNRP’s nonrecognition of the Lobo government.
 
On his way home from the rally, activist Oscar Flores was kidnapped by three armed men with crew cuts, who he said he was sure were military men dressed in civilian clothes. Other "military-type" men interrogated him in an undisclosed location, consulting a computerized list to see if he was on it, eventually determining he wasn’t. Flores was made to undress and asked questions about other resistance leaders and funding. The interrogation and capture lasted all night, and he was left blindfolded on the side of a road the following morning.

6. IACHR puts Honduras on its human rights "black list"

On April 16, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights presented its annual human rights report to the OAS, adding Honduras to its “black list” for the first time. Also included in the commission's "Human Rights Development in the Region" section—which it says serves the purpose of "providing the OAS updated information on the human rights situation in those countries that had been the subject of the Commission's special attention"—are Colombia, Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela.

Criteria for inclusion are fivefold: (1) lack of democratic election of leadership; (2) suspension or denial of free exercise of rights; (3) evidence of state participation in “massive and grave violations of the human rights”; (4) states in transition from any of the above; and (5) temporary or structural situations that affect the enjoyment of rights. Honduras met the first three criteria in 2009, the first time a country has been added since 2006.
 
Official Honduran reaction to the report was mixed. The Human Rights Minister Ana Pineda hailed the report as “an opportunity to improve our work on human rights issues.” She added, “We need to heed its recommendations and, most of all, prevent a reoccurrence of violations.” Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio, on the other hand, considered the document biased, because the commission’s head is Venezuelan, and the executive secretary of the commission is Argentinean.
 
7. More generals in charge of civilian posts

On April 20, a number of military leaders were named to civilian posts in the Lobo government. Divisional Gen. Venancio Cervantes was sworn in as director general of the Immigration and Foreigners Office, and Brig. Gen. Manuel Enrique Cáceres took the post of head of Civil Aeronautics. Cervantes—one of the generals implicated and later cleared of wrongdoing in the illegal deportation of Manuel Zelaya (see January HNR.)—took over that post from Nelson Wily Mejía, who had held that post since the June 28 coup last year. Mejía is leaving to take the post of director of the Merchant Marines; he had come under criticism from Cofadeh for alleged ties to Battalion 3-16 in the 1980s. These three join former Joint Chiefs of Staff, Romeo Vásquez Velázquez—now chief of the Honduran telecommunications company, Conatel—on the list of active or retired senior military personnel now working in civilian government posts.

8. Judge sets free officials accused of abuses in media shutdowns

On April 12, Penal Judge Martha Murillo dismissed the case against Miguel Ángel Rodas, Héctor Eduardo Pavón, Germán Enrique Martel and Gustavo Adolfo Lara, ex-president and former commissioners, respectively of Conatel, the national telecommunications company, for their role in the shutdown and equipment seizure of Canal 36, Cholusat Sur and Radio Globo on Sept. 28 of last year. Citing the "State of Exception" in place at the time, Judge Murillo said the acts did not constitute a violation of freedom of expression. Special Prosecutor for Human Rights Sandra Ponce disagreed with the decision, saying it was "not properly grounded and represents a clear violation of human rights in this country.” Article 73 in the Honduras constitution establishes that a media outlet’s equipment cannot be seized or confiscated, nor its work shut down or interrupted. The prosecutor argued that this article is not among those that can be suspended during a State of Exception.

9. Diplomacy update: Honduras gains support for reintegration into international community

Honduran Foreign Minister Mario Canahuati said Honduras' membership in the OAS should be reinstated when the next general assembly convenes in Peru on June 6 to 8.  On April 29, OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza met with President Lobo in Washington, and it was reported that Insulza supported Honduras’ readmittance into the organization.

Several countries, including Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela, refuse to recognize the government and oppose reintegration. Brazilian President Lula da Silva expressed his opposition. “Democratic institutions in Honduras are not sufficiently consolidated,” he said, citing as an example an amnesty that had been granted to military officers involved in last year’s coup but not granted to former President Zelaya, who was ousted and remains in exile. But Honduras is gaining support. Costa Rican President-elect Laura Chinchilla said Honduras should be allowed to return to the OAS and the Central American Integration System as quickly as possible.

Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega, who has held off support for Honduras until recently, met with Lobo on April 20 and said, “We’re convinced it’s necessary to normalize relations” as the two signed an agreement to reactivate a bilateral commission on fishing and issues regarding the Gulf of Fonseca. Following that meeting, U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens said the meeting itself was a recognition of the Lobo government.
 
President Lobo has announced that he will be attending the EU-Latin America Summit in Madrid, scheduled for May 17 to 18, and that he had been invited back in March. Earlier this month, when a delegation of the FNRP led by Carlos H. Reyes, former independent presidential candidate, was received by the Spanish Foreign Ministry, cabinet chief Agustín Santos indicated his government's recognition of the resistance group as a political force in Honduras and its continued concern over human rights violations. At the meeting, Santos asserted that the EU would not invite Lobo to the summit, if there was not consensus that he be included.
 
10. U.S. policy update: U.S. maintains support for Lobo government
 
Following Lobo’s visit to the United States last week to speak at his alma mater, the University of Miami, and at Tulane University in New Orleans, President Barack Obama spoke with him for the first time by phone. A White House statement reported that although concerned for the human rights situation, Obama maintained support for Honduras’ return to the OAS and “commended [him] for his leadership in his first months in office in promoting national reconciliation and restoring democratic and constitutional order in Honduras. The president took particular note of the Truth Commission agreed to as part of the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord and championed by President Lobo that is set to begin its work in the coming days.”
 
Following the call between presidents, Honduran Foreign Minister Mario Canahuati visited the United States to meet with Secretary of State Clinton and representatives of other governments. In a joint appearance, Clinton reiterated support for the Lobo government: “As I have said on numerous occasions, I think that the steps that President Lobo and his government have taken deserve our support, and we want to work with the government and the people of Honduras to get them back fully on the path of democracy, the rule of law, good governance.” Clinton did not mention human rights concerns, and instead highlighted “standard of living and the quality of life of the Honduran people … drug trafficking and the crime that stalks all of Central America.”

During the joint appearance Canahuati remarked, “Democracy has to do with opportunities, with strong institutions, with respect of human rights. And in this moment, our president has shown his commitment on the political side to move forward with initiatives like the Truth Commission, appointing a minister of human rights, which will be his advisor in terms of making sure that this issue, which is a state issue, is being managed the right way.”

11. Upcoming delegation to Honduras

JUNE 26-JULY 4: Rights Action will host a delegation around the first anniversary of the June 28, 2009, military coup against the elected government. For information, contact Annie Bird: annie@rightsaction.org.