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Updated 02/02/2010

Honduras News in Review—January 2010

1. New Honduran president takes office as Zelaya heads into exile
2. Honduran generals cleared of wrongdoing in coup
3. Lobo's party forces amnesty measure through Congress
4. Outgoing congress grants Micheletti permanent congressional seat, interim government officials lifetime security detail
5. Deaths, threats against resistance members give rise to exiles
6. Resistance movement remains active even as Zelaya leaves country
7. State security forces attack campesino agrarian-reform group
8. Garífuna radio burns
9. Honduras withdraws from ALBA
10. Alleged former Battalion 3-16 member removed from government post, immediately reinstated
11. U.S. policy update
12. IACHR issues report on Honduras
13. Recent videos
14. Action alert: Support declassification effort
15. Get involved: Delegations to Honduras

1. New Honduran president takes office as Zelaya heads into exile

As President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo Sosa was sworn into office on Jan. 27, Amnesty International called on him to look into the multitude of human rights violations that have been reported since the June 28 coup that threw the country into turmoil, to bring responsible parties to justice, and to compensate the victims. Lobo has been conciliatory in his tone since the election, negotiating safe passage for deposed and exiled former President Manuel Zelaya, who left for the Dominican Republic on inauguration day.

Lobo also announced that members of minority parties would be joining his government, including former Democratic Unification Party presidential candidate César Ham, who will head up the National Agrarian Institute; Innovation and Unity Party presidential candidate Bernard Martínez, who will head the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Sports; and former Christian Democratic Party presidential candidate Felícito Avila, who will be Minister of Labor. The resistance movement, however, has rejected Lobo's presidency and claims of creating a unity government. (See story below.)

2. Honduran generals cleared of wrongdoing in coup

On Jan. 26, Honduran Supreme Court President Jorge Rivera dismissed charges against six generals accused of abuse of authority and illegal expatriation of deposed President Manuel Zelaya during the events of the June 28 coup last year.

The charges did not bring into question the legality of the raid on the presidential mansion or Zelaya’s gunpoint detention by military authority, areas that had been deemed legal by the Supreme Court already. If convicted, Romeo Orlando Vásquez Velásquez, Venancio Cervantes, Carlos Antonio Cuéllar, Miguel Angel García, Luis Javier Prince and Juan Pablo Rodríguez would have faced sentences of three to six years.

Judge Rivera accepted the argument set forth initially by the coup government and reiterated by the generals’ defense attorney that they were acting to prevent bloodshed. Prosecutors in the case plan to appeal the decision, which appeared timed to coincide with the Jan. 27 inauguration of Porfirio Lobo as the new Honduran president.

Lawyer Reina Rivera, director of the Center for Investigation and Promotion of Human Rights in Honduras (Ciprodeh), told MISF that she was denied the chance to present evidence that the charges against the generals should be expanded to include the illegality of the coup itself as well as the repression—including at least 50 confirmed deaths, 12 possible disappearances and numerous other rights violations documented by various human rights organizations—carried out during the national crisis that ensued.

The Committee for Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (Codeh) put the number of unprosecuted deaths at 140. A group made up of Ciprodeh, Codeh and other major human rights groups in Honduras, calling itself the Platform for Human Rights (Plataforma de Derechos Humanos), on Jan. 22 issued a declaration withdrawing its support and recognition of the Supreme Court because of its complicity in the coup.

3. Lobo's party forces amnesty measure through Congress

On Jan. 26, the eve of Porfirio Lobo’s inauguration, his National Party forced a general amnesty through Congress with hardly any other support, pardoning all political crimes and related common crimes occurring between Jan. 1, 2008, and Jan. 27, 2010. Though no names were mentioned, the National Party’s stated aim was to move forward the process of national reconciliation, pardoning both former President Manuel Zelaya for alleged acts of treason and former interim President Roberto Micheletti for any future charges relating to the coup of June 28.

The document was not entirely neutral, however, as its “wherefore” clauses indicated the innocence of Micheletti and the previous congress, as well as that of the military that forcibly removed Zelaya from office and the country, while leaving Zelaya open for charges of misuse of funds in putting forth the now-infamous “fourth ballot” survey regarding a constitutional assembly. According to the Honduran paper El Tiempo, the amnesty would not exonerate human rights violations, including illegal detentions, military repression of protests, and the manifold injuries and deaths that have reportedly taken place during the civil crisis.
 
A preemptive amnesty like this one, coming as it does before any real process of national dialogue has taken place, was criticized in the days before passage by human rights advocates and analysts such as Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "The Honduran regime is hoping to receive amnesty for its crimes, even as it continues to murder resistance activists," he said, referring to the recent murder of Edwin Renán Fajardo Argueta. (See story below). An attempt at amnesty, Weisbrot said, would only serve to "whitewash the coup."
 
Codeh Director Andrés Pavón said that amnesty will not prevent coup plotters from being tried before the International Criminal Court if the Honduran system doesn’t try them first. “No crime against humanity can be the object of amnesty,” he said, “therefore, when there is amnesty in a case like this, it would be sufficient evidence for the ICC prosecutor to justify the state’s intent to protect the guilty.” As it happens, the ICC has opened an investigation of Supreme Court President Jorge Rivera Avilez and Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubí Avila, according to Ciprodeh director Reina Rivera, who said the court will wait to see if any action is taken in Honduras first.

4. Outgoing congress grants Micheletti permanent congressional seat, interim government officials lifetime security detail
 
Meanwhile, on Jan. 14, its last day in office, the outgoing congress voted to grant former interim President Roberto Micheletti a lifetime salary in the congress, much like Chile gave Augusto Pinochet. Congress also granted a lifetime security detail for 50 officials involved in the coup and their families, including Micheletti, Supreme Court President Jorge Rivera, Attorney General Luis Rubí, Assistant Attorney General Roy Urtecho, the six military chiefs of staff, and 17 ministers and 17 vice ministers of Micheletti’s interim government. Officials have the choice to use private security firms for this detail, which would still be paid for by the Honduran government.

5. Deaths, threats against resistance members gives rise to exiles

Since the November 2009 presidential elections, according to a number of Honduran human rights defenders, repression of the resistance movement appears to be taking a new and subtler form: threats against life and personal safety that force individuals to flee the country.

In early January Cesar Silva, an independent pro-resistance journalist who had worked for the state television channel prior to the coup, fled Honduras after being captured by three armed men on Dec. 28, held in a clandestine jail, and tortured and interrogated for more than 24 hours before being released. In an interview from an undisclosed location, Silva said he was asked about the location of arms, how many "cells" he was in charge of, and who his international contacts were. When he explained that he was a journalist and didn't have answers to those questions, his captors began to beat and torture him. Silva said he believes he was released in order to send a message. “They want to use my case to sow fear among my colleagues," he said. "They want to silence us.”

Silva’s partner on a number of video reporting projects, Edwin Renán Fajardo Argueta, wasn’t so fortunate. His body was found on the morning of Dec. 23, hanging by his neck from a wire in what appeared to be a staged suicide. Silva and Farjardo had been traveling around the country, showing a video they produced to educate people about the events of the coup. Fajardo had expressed fear for his safety to his family and friends, based on threatening messages received on his cell phone.

Gilberto Rios, a longtime resistance member, has also fled the country out of fear for his life. In an interview, Rios drew parallels to what he called “the season of terror” in the 1980s, saying, “Now, the [military] doesn’t attack prominent leaders, but rather members who form the rank and file of the resistance.” The Committee for Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (Cofadeh) also issued a statement decrying the recent violence and forced exiles, drawing comparisons to events in the 1980s and calling on the international human rights community to remain vigilant.

Human rights defenders say these recent self-imposed exiles—along with many others reported—highlight the latest trend in repression by military forces in Honduras. “The repression is no longer as overt or out in the open,” Reina Rivera of Ciprodeh told MISF. She said her organization has recently helped members of the LGBT community escape the country after receiving threats. “The new tactic is to clear out dissent by forcing exile.” Rivera said she was aware of resistance leaders who reported being threatened to leave the country in 48 hours “or else

6. Resistance movement remains active even as Zelaya leaves country

In Tegucigalpa a massive march of resistance supporters, stretching approximately four miles to Toncontín airport, gathered on Jan. 27 to see off former President Manuel Zelaya, whose negotiated exit from the country had been set for that date. Rallies formed in other parts of the country as well, all echoing the sentiment that the resistance doesn’t stop because Zelaya is gone.

El Tiempo, one of the only sources of objective reporting during the months after the coup, reported being denied entry to the airport to cover the march and Zelaya’s exit. Although previously authorized, its reporters, along with those of several other mainstream outlets, were stalled and ultimately rebuffed by military personnel guarding the area.
 
Earlier protests across the country had been largely undisturbed, but a Jan. 15 march in San Pedro Sula was met with a battalion of 500 military and paramilitary officers and was disbanded by the organizers for fear of more violent repression.

Reacting to reports that the resistance has accepted the new Lobo government, the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), in its 46th communiqué dated Jan. 26, reiterated its rejection of the Nov. 29 election and of Lobo’s presidency, saying it "has not authorized any of its members to form part of the government.” The FNRP had previously stated, in its 44th communiqué, dated Jan. 7, that it considered the transfer of power “the oligarchy’s stunt” to distance itself from the coup while “leaving intact the systematic domination of the state by a privileged minority of corrupt businessmen, transnational corporations and repressive military and police forces.” The group reiterated the popular call for a constitutional assembly that would allow the people more democratic governance. It was his promotion of such a constitutional assembly that led to Zelaya's removal from office last June.

7. State security forces attack campesino agrarian-reform group

On Jan. 8, a battalion of 300 military and police forcibly evicted over 600 campesinos in the Aguan Valley agricultural area, dealing a major blow to a decades-long agrarian reform process in the area, which had reached a major breakthrough two weeks before the June 28 coup last year. The action was unexpectedly brutal, Ciprodeh director Reina Rivera told MISF. Armed soldiers chased campesinos through oil-palm fields, harassing women and elderly individuals with whom they caught up.

Ultimately, more than 20 people were injured and roughly 30 detained in the 15th infantry battalion headquarters in Rio Claro. According to a statement by Cofadeh, those being held were subjected to abuse, mistreatment and torture. Cofadeh submitted requests for writs habeas corpus for the detainees. Subsequently, most were released, but 18 were charged with illegal land seizure.
 
The land in question is purportedly owned by Miguel Facussé (palm-oil magnate and coup supporter), René Morales and Reinaldo Canales, who bought the land for pennies on the dollar in a deal whose validity and legality lies at the heart of the conflict. The land had long been managed by the government under the reform agreement and worked by the Unified Campesino Movement of Aguan (Muca), a worker’s collective. After the coup, members of Muca took part in the takeover of the National Agrarian Institute offices in an effort to block a reversal of the agrarian reform achieved under Zelaya.

“These lands were acquired illegally and still belong to the state,” Luis Santos Madrid, secretary general of the National Agrarian Institute Workers Union, said. “However, they chose to act violently instead of sticking to the negotiation process initiated before the coup to resolve the issue.” In a statement, Muca accused the three businessmen of hiring the military to do their dirty work. [Sources: TeleSur, 1/8/10;  El Heraldo, 1/9/10; Vos El Soberano, 1/9/10, 1/9/10, 1/12/10, 1/13/10, 1/14/10; HablaHonduras, 1/12/10]
 
8. Garífuna radio burns

In the early morning hours of Jan. 6, unknown assailants broke into Faluma Binetu, an independent Garífuna radio station critical of the coup, sacked the facilities and set fire to the building, destroying all the remaining equipment. The station was a strong rights advocate for the Afro-descended Garífuna community, speaking out for protection of ancestral lands. This is not the first time the station has been the subject of attacks. In 2002, assailants destroyed equipment in the station, and on Nov. 21, a man brandishing a machete was held back from entering with similar intentions. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International have both expressed worry about the attack and concern for the employees. Plans are under way for the reconstruction and relaunch of the station. (See delegation story below.)
 
9. Honduras withdraws from ALBA

On Jan. 26, a day before his term as de facto president came to a close, Roberto Micheletti signed Honduras’ official exit from the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), the Venezuela-led trade accord—promoted by former President Manuel Zelaya—to which he had, as congressional president a year earlier, signed on.
 
10. Alleged former Battalion 3-16 member removed from government post, immediately reinstated

After calling a press conference on Jan. 29 to announce the dismissal of Director of Immigration Nelson Willy Mejía for barring a Brazilian consul from entering the country, President Porfirio Lobo the following day announced his reinstatement. Mejía, a former general of the Honduran Armed Forces, allegedly was a member of the notorious Battalion 3-16 ], which is accused of kidnapping, torturing and "disappearing" scores of activists during the 1980s. Mejía reportedly denied the consul entry to conform with orders imposed under interim President Roberto Micheletti barring entry to diplomats of countries that did not recognize the de facto Honduran government. Announcing Mejía's dismissal, Lobo said, "Right now we are a government that is, rather, opening the door to reestablish ties with different countries." In reinstating the immigration director, the government cited the prior day's decision "a misunderstanding and a mistake."

11. U.S. policy update

Even as President Pofirio Lobo was inaugurated this week, many countries still do not recognize the legitimacy of Honduras' November 2009 elections. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela and other State Department officials, however, were present at the swearing in, along with representatives of 19 other governments.

At a Jan. 5 press briefing, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley did acknowledge some concerns while reiterating support for the election and incoming President Lobo: "The real question is: Can that [new Lobo] government be a vehicle through which you begin a healing process and you have a situation where the Honduran people can unite behind this new government? That is our primary effort here: How do we help Honduras move forward and to overcome the clear tension that resulted in the actions taken last June? ... As we said back in November, the election was a step forward. We felt that the results did reflect the will of the Honduran people. That said, the election by itself was not enough to—we have some decisions to make in terms of the nature of our relationship, the nature of assistance in the future."

On Jan. 5 and 6, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Craig Kelly visited Honduras to meet with leaders from various sectors and "to underscore continuing U.S. support for fulfillment of the San Jose-Tegucigalpa Accord"—which is considered a failure by former President Manuel Zelaya, the Resistance movement, and popular and rights groups. The State Department reiterated its previously stated position that "expeditious formation of a government of national unity and the establishment of a truth commission are important next steps," but it offered no guidelines for how those processes should proceed. Meanwhile, many who might have been named as human rights violators if such a truth commission was convened have already been given amnesty. (See story above.)

In a move to normalize U.S.-Honduras diplomatic ties, U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens on Jan. 29 met and held joint press conference with Lobo. Reuters reported that the U.S. said it would resume aid to Honduras, but no details were given as to who made the announcement or when aid would resume. Llorens was quoted only as saying, "In Washington, we're already looking at how to restart our economic assistance." Two days earlier, Arturo Valenzuela, U.S. assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, had told reporters that the United States would be evaluating the situation in Honduras before determining whether to restart assistance.

12. IACHR issues report on Honduras

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on Dec. 30 issued a full report entitled "Honduras: Human Rights and the Coup d'Etat." The report covers the background of the coup and includes the findings of its Aug. 17-21, 2009, visit to Honduras to observe the on-the-ground human rights situation after the events of June 28.

13. Recent videos

In this TeleSur TV piece (in Spanish), Andres Pavon, director of Codeh, is interviewed during the Jan. 27 Resistance march in Tegucigalpa.

This video published by the Quixote Center chronicles the months following the June 28 coup in Honduras. The producers, Cesar Silva and Edwin Renán Fajardo Argueta, were reportedly targeted and intimidated for their work. Fajardo was found dead on Dec. 23 and Silva was captured, interrogated and tortured for more than a day. Fearing for his safety after his release, Silva has fled the country. (See story above.)

"Shot in the Back," produced by Witness for Peace, provides short commentary by Hondurans on events since the coup.

14. Action alert: Support declassification effort

Send a letter to President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, your U.S. senators and your U.S. representative, asking them to contact CIA Director Leon Panetta to express their support for a Freedom of Information Act request that Father Joseph Mulligan has sent to the CIA. If you have the time, old-fashioned snail mail letters will be most effective.

The request is related to the case of Father James “Guadalupe” Carney, an American priest who disappeared in Honduras in 1983 when a small revolutionary group for whom he served as chaplain was attacked and captured by Honduran military forces in a counterinsurgency operation. Although the Honduran military officially denied any involvement or knowledge of the priest's disappearance, a former Honduran army officer later testified that Carney, a longtime defender of human rights for Honduran campesinos, had been tortured and executed. The CIA has stated that it cannot rule out the possibility that Carney was captured and killed by the Honduran military.

Mulligan’s original 2001 FOIA request was never decided, so he renewed the request in July 2009. Support for this request is urgent at this time because 25 years have passed since the events in question, and declassification is more likely.
 
This sample letter provides the basic information about this matter. You may wish to follow up with phone calls about a week after sending your letter (White House: 202-456-1111; State Department: 202-647-4000; U.S. Capitol: 202-224-3121).

15. Get involved: Delegations to Honduras

Feb. 1-7: National and international work brigade to reconstruct and relaunch Radio Faluma Bimetu, the Garífuna community radio station that was burnt down on Jan. 6. (See story above.) During the week, participants will reinstall electricity, paint the walls, remove and replace the roof, rebuild the tables, put a fence around the radio, and reinstall radio equipment. For more information: In Honduras—Karen Spring, [011] 504 9507-3835, spring.kj@gmail.com;
In USA/Canada—Annie Bird, annie@rightsaction.org, 202-680-3002; Grahame Russell, info@rightsaction.org, 860-352-2448. To donate to this cause, click here.

March 13-20: Honduras Solidarity Delegation. Meeting in Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula, the group will hear from the popular resistance movement and human rights groups, visit political prisoners and threatened communities, and document human rights abuses. This delegation is being organized by the Task Force on the Americas, led by Andrés Conteris, who recently left the Brazilian Embassy in Honduras after accompanying President Zelaya for five months. Andrés has been a Latin America human rights activist for many years, is a co-producer of the documentary Hidden in Plain Sight (about the SOA in Latin America), and a Latin America correspondent for Democracy Now!

Cost: $700, includes all ground expenses; does not include airfare. Contact Dale: 415-924-3227 or Geodale1@earthlink.net for details and an application. For further information on this and other delegations and events, click here.

April 3-11: Witness for Peace returns to Honduras to stand in solidarity with the people of Honduras at a critical stage in their struggle for democracy. They will gather first-hand reports and return to the United States with testimony that will help influence U.S. policy. Applications are due Feb. 20. Click here to apply. 

Jan. 24-31: The Quixote Center and Rights Action conducted a delegation to Honduras. To learn more about ongoing Quixote Center delegations, click here.