Honduras: Things Fall Apart

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On October 29th, Honduras’s de-facto leader Roberto Micheletti agreed to step down, allowing the Honduran Congress to decide whether President Manuel Zelaya would be reinstated. It looked like there could be a resolution to the crisis that began when President Zelaya was removed from his home at gunpoint on June 28th and sent into exile.

Immediately after signing the accord, however, the agreement began to fall apart. De facto president Roberto Micheletti decided that he could be the leader of the national unity government—a stance obviously unacceptable to Zelaya and his supporters. The Honduran Congress delayed making a decision on Zelaya’s temporary reinstatement. And the clock kept ticking towards the elections, making the possibility of free and fair campaigning, in a climate in which press has been restricted and protests repressed, even more unattainable.

And the U.S. State Department, after having carefully helped negotiate the accord, issued statements indicating the United States would accept the elections even if the accord was not fulfilled. According to Frederick L. Jones, spokesman for Senator John Kerry on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “The State Department’s abrupt change in policy last week—recognizing the elections scheduled for November 29th even if the coup regime does not meet its commitments under the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord—caused the collapse of an accord it helped negotiate.”

And after the State Department backed off, Senator DeMint lifted the hold he had on Arturo Valenzuela’s nomination to the top Latin America post at the State Department. This sequence of events does not bode well for those who would like the State Department to stand up for principles, not politics.

Here at the Latin America Working Group, we’ve focused on making sure policymakers are hearing about the widespread and serious violations of human rights and civil liberties that have taken place since June 28th. Here are excerpts from some reports and articles.

As President Manuel Zelaya slipped back in the country and took refuge in the Brazilian embassy, and as the Organization of American States (OAS) attempted to advance negotiations, police used tear gas to dislodge Zelaya supporters in front of the Brazilian embassy and suppression and harassment of media continued. Human rights groups described to the New York Times as recently as October 5th “an atmosphere of growing impunity, one in which security forces act unhindered by legal constraints.”  

On October 22, the Honduran human rights group COFADEH reported that 21 people have been killed in circumstances that the group identifies as related to the repression following the coup, ranging from people killed by police gunfire to complications following being teargassed to assassinations of resistance leaders by unknown assailants. COFADEH details physical abuse by security forces, including beatings of people in detention and during protests with fists and sticks and even burns with cigarettes. The report also lists over three thousand arbitrary detentions. To just give two examples of loss of life, COFADEH reports that Roger Abraham Vallejo Soriano, a thirty-eight year old teacher, was killed by a bullet when he was with a group of demonstrators July 30; a witness observed police shooting at the demonstrators. Twenty-four-year old Wendy Elizabeth Avila died of bronchial spasms after inhaling tear gas as the September 22nd demonstrations in front of the Brazilian embassy were dispersed. To read COFADEH director Bertha Oliva's comments at a recent congressional briefing on the human rights situation in Honduras, click here.

An international mission composed of human rights experts from a dozen Latin American and European countries published an August 7th report that emphasized the failure of Honduras’ judicial, legislative and governmental oversight institutions to carry out their obligations to protect the rights of Honduran citizens. Among other serious lapses, no state institution, except the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights to a limited extent, has taken any action to protect the rights of persons detained as a result of their participation in the marches or curfew violations. The report observes that the curfew serves “as a tool for the defacto government to control and keep groups opposing the coup d’Etat from appearing in public.” The National Human Rights Commissioner, rather than carrying out his duties, has attacked the efforts of human rights organization by discrediting their work. The report concludes that “state institutions have not provided an adequate and effective response to the charges of human rights violations that have been brought, which means that, in fact, no guarantees protecting human rights are in place. Therefore, the affected population has been left defenseless.”

The Center for the Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and their Families (CPTRT) in Tegucigalpa released a report asserting that they had provided attention to 34 victims of torture and cruel treatment since June 28th. These individuals had suffered beatings, being choked, burned, threatened, sexual violated and other abuses, largely by members of the police. The Center also documented violations directed against human rights defenders, including members of the Center, the human rights group COFADEH, and women’s and LBGT organizations. These violations included constant surveillance in their offices and in their homes, menacing phone threats, and other intimidating acts.
On October 2, 2009, four United Nations human rights experts expressed their serious concern about the human rights violations in Honduras since the return of deposed President Manuel Zelaya, commenting that “police and military officers are resorting to the use of excessive force including beatings and shootings, in order to dissolve street protests.” They asserted that there have been large-scale detentions, in some cases in non-authorized facilities where those arrested run the risk of being subjected to torture and other forms of cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment. UN experts also expressed concern that former Colombia paramilitaries from the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) were being recruited to protect wealthy people and property.

According to press freedom groups, in addition to social and political repression of the populace, extreme restrictions have been placed on the freedoms of expression. Media outlets have been raided, their equipment confiscated, and effectively silenced by the interim regime. The military government recently issued a new decree allowing the government’s telecommunications agency to revoke licenses for radio and television stations that transmit “messages that promote social anarchy,” thereby continuing censorship.

Rather than addressing the international community’s concerns about the coup and human rights violations, Micheletti has decided that the best course of action to confront the mounting international pressure is to hire D.C. lobbyists. According to the New York Times and Washington Post, the de facto regime has spent between $400,000 – $600,000 as of October 9th hiring a Washington-based Public Relations firm “to tell U.S. officials, their staffs, the media and nongovernmental groups how the coup leaders are really the good guys.”

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