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Honduras: Trial of seven environmental rights defenders on charge of “forced displacement”

Captura de pantalla de 2021-05-26 13-23-40

The trial of environmental rights defenders Christopher Castillo, Jeffry Suazo, Michael Aguilar, Víctor Hernández, Patricia Godoy, María Valladares and Fernando Hernández was scheduled to start on 27 April 2021 before the Supreme Court in Barrio la Granja, Tegucigalpa. The environmental rights defenders have been under house arrest since they were forcibly detained on 29 March 2021. All seven are charged with “forced displacement”, which carries a possible sentence of three to nine years’ imprisonment.

Christopher Castillo, Jeffry Suazo, Michael Aguilar, Víctor Hernández, Patricia Godoy, María Valladares and Fernando Hernández are environmental defenders from the community of Loarque and members of Alternativa de Reivindicación Comunitaria y Ambientalista de Honduras (ARCAH), an organisation that defends the community’s natural resources and advocates against extractive projects in Honduras. Christopher Castillo is the General Coordinator of ARCAH. On 29 March 2021, the seven environmental rights defenders and other members of ARCAH were carrying out a peaceful demonstration outside the offices of the poultry company “El Cortijo” to protest the company’s activities which have polluted a local river, when they were violently detained and threatened by around 90 officers from the State security forces. The group of law enforcement officials was comprised of officers from the Honduran National Police, the “Tigres” Command, and members of the Police Investigation Directorate (DPI). The officers arrived at the site in two military tanks and five patrol cars, and did not present a dispersal order or arrest warrant. The officers confiscated the defenders’ mobile phones and searched through them, before taking them to the Police Directorate of Investigation (DPI) in Kennedy, Tegucigalpa. From there, the environmental rights defenders were then taken to the Metropolitan Prevention Unit (UMEP 1), where they were detained for more than 20 hours and charged with “forced displacement”. Christopher Castillo, Jeffry Suazo, Michael Aguilar, Víctor Hernández, Patricia Godoy, María Valladares and Fernando Hernández were released from UMEP 1 on 30 March 2021 and placed under house arrest until their trial.

Members of ARCAH have previously reported to the authorities threats and attacks against them in relation to their legitimate work in defence of natural resources and territory. Since January 2020, Christopher Castillo has been a beneficiary of Security Measures from the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders in Honduras, due to previous attempts on his life and repeated death threats he has received.

In recent months, partners observed a worrying increase in the use of the charge of forced displacement against human rights defenders in Honduras, particularly those defending the environment, and land and territory rights. In December 2020, human rights defender Víctor Vásquez from Movimiento Indígena Independiente Lenca de La Paz (Lenca Indi genous Movement of La Paz, Honduras (MILPAH) was indicted on fabricated charges of forced displacement and in March 2021, woman human rights defender Jennifer Solórzano member of Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras (OFRANEH) was indicted with the same charge.

Honduras is ranked 151 in the RSF 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Ever since the coup d’état in 2009, the plight of the media has worsened steadily in the country, which continues to be one of the western hemisphere’s deadliest countries for journalists. Those working for opposition media or community media are often subjected to harassment, intimidation campaigns and death threats, and some are forced to flee abroad. The security forces, especially the military police and army, are responsible for most of the abuses and violence against the media. In this country racked by violence, organised crime and corruption, the impunity rate is among the highest in the region. Journalists are also often the targets of abusive judicial proceedings, and prison sentences for defamation are common, sometimes accompanied by bans on working as a journalist after release.