By Kathy Price
It was less than a month ago that I visited Honduras with an Amnesty delegation that travelled to Intibucá and La Paz to meet with threatened defenders of human rights, Indigenous territory and the environment. We also met with other courageous rights activists in the capital, Tegucigalpa.
It was dangerous then, amidst smear campaigns, arbitrary arrests, threats of sexual violence against women, armed attacks and the fear generated by assassinations of beloved leaders like Berta Cáceres.
But make no mistake. Disturbing developments during the past turbulent weeks in Honduras have significantly increased the risks for anyone who speaks out against injustice and abuse of power.
Tensions were already running high since the country’s highest court — packed with supporters of President Juan Orlando Hernández – issued a controversial ruling allowing him to run for a second term, despite a constitutional ban on re-election of a sitting or former leader.
Hondurans went to the polls on November 26, with Hernández, presidential candidate of the conservative National Party, touted by media as the front runner.
Nine hours after the polls closed, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (known by its Spanish acronym TSE) released preliminary results based on a revision of 57 percent of the votes.
Those results put Salvador Nasralla, candidate for the Opposition Alliance Against Dictatorship, ahead with a 5 point lead. TSE Magistrate Ramiro Lobo called the lead “irreversible”.
While Hondurans waited anxiously for the final results to be made public, the TSE stalled. Days passed and suspicions mounted amidst a spate of irregularities including claims the TSE computer system had shut down. When the system was announced to be back up, the TSE reported Hernández had overtaken Nasralla by a narrow 1.6 percentage point lead.
Accusations of fraud echoed around the country.
The opposition refused to concede and called for a verifiable recount, a request backed by European Union and Organization of American States election observers.
Respected international media like The Economist reported evidence suggesting vote rigging.
As indignation grew, thousands of people took part in peaceful public protests. Some blocked roads.
The response was swift.
On December 1st, Honduran authorities declared a state of emergency. The decree established a curfew that limited the right to freedom of movement and made it illegal to be on the streets from sundown to dawn. The decree also allowed the armed forces, trained to fight “enemies” of Honduras, to operate with the national police force to maintain security and order.
Scores of security forces were deployed across the country with terrifying consequences.
At least 14 people have been reported killed since November 29, including a teenaged girl shot dead by police in the capital, Tegucigalpa.
Dozens have been arrested and detained, including children. Others have been injured during operations to repress protests.
In a public statement on December 8, Amnesty said the Honduran government is deploying dangerous and illegal tactics to silence any dissenting voices, including excessive use of force with lethal weapons against crowds that include old people and children.
It’s an alarming panorama that evokes memories of the violence unleashed by a military-backed coup d’état in 2009 that also suspended constitutional guarantees and human rights.
The targets of vicious repression and assassinations were those who courageously protested human rights violations.
A worrying harbinger is a recent change to Honduras’ Criminal Code that could be interpreted to classify peaceful protests as terrorist offences and human rights defenders, like the amazing women and men we met during our visit to Honduras last month, as criminals.
The question now is how much worse will things get and how will the international community react?
Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a public statement on December 2 expressing concern about escalating violence and suspension of constitutional guarantees. She spoke out again on December 10, lamenting the deaths and injuries that have occurred since the elections and stating: “Canada calls upon the Honduran authorities to reinstate constitutional rights and guarantees without delay. Democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law must be upheld.”
Such words from the Canadian government are important.
But much more is needed if we are to ensure that women, men and youth, who are defending rights and justice in Honduras, are able to do so without fear of harm.
December 12: Amnesty issued an Urgent Action after Honduran human rights organizations and independent media were targeted with a series of extremely worrying security incidents, including threats and persecution of their members, illegal raids and damaged facilities.
December 20: Amnesty issued a new Urgent Action in response to continued and escalating violence by security forces. At least 6 new deaths were registered as a result of violent repression between December 15 and 20 alone, as well as multiple cases of people injured by firearms, brutally beaten by security forces and other treatment that could amount to torture. Local human rights organizations confirmed the substantial and indiscriminate use of tear gas, including tear gas dispensers thrown from helicopters and into houses, resulting in several people experiencing respiratory troubles, including children. Hundreds of people have been arrested or detained.
Here are three things you can do today!
1. Send personal messages of concern in response to our December 12 Urgent Action for defenders and journalists at risk and our December 20 Urgent Action about violence and other abuses against peaceful protests. NOTE: It is very important to send copies of your messages to Canada’s Foreign Minister since the Honduran government is influenced by the international community.
2. Add your name to our #WriteforRights e-action for threatened Lenca Indigenous human rights defenders of MILPAH
3. Sign our #WeDefend e-action for threatened Indigenous defenders of COPINH