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Guatemala: Amnesty International declares Bernardo Caal Xol a prisoner of conscience

    Photo credit: Anaís Taracena/Amnesty International
    July 16, 2020

    Bernardo Caal Xol, a Q'eqchi' Maya Indigenous leader and Guatemalan human rights defender, is a prisoner of conscience who has been wrongfully imprisoned for more than two years, Amnesty International said today.  

    Since 2015, Bernardo Caal has defended the rights of the communities of Santa María Cahabón, who have been affected by the construction of the OXEC hydroelectric plant on the Oxec and Cahabón rivers in the northern department of Alta Verapaz. He filed a series of injunctions against the project and in 2017 the high courts acknowledged that the right to free, prior, and informed consultation of the Indigenous communities was violated.

    In retaliation, Bernardo Caal was accused of carrying out alleged acts of violence against employees of NETZONE SA, an OXEC contractor, on 15 October 2015. On 9 November 2018, a court sentenced him to seven years and four months in prison for the crimes of unlawful detention with aggravating circumstances and aggravated robbery. 

    “Having reviewed the ongoing criminal proceedings against Bernardo Caal, it’s clear that there’s no evidence of the crimes that he’s accused of. On the contrary, the proceedings against Bernardo show the same patterns of criminalization of human rights defenders that we have documented in the country for years. We therefore declare today that he is a prisoner of conscience, we demand his freedom and we ask that the Attorney General’s Office review his case and investigate the officials who carried out the investigation,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

    “Unfortunately, in Guatemala those who speak out to defend their rights continue to be criminalized. The authorities continue to use the criminal justice system to silence and imprison human rights defenders, and this time it is Bernardo who has had to spend more than two years in prison only for being one of the public faces of the complaints of the Q'eqchi' People. The Guatemalan authorities must put an end to these unfair practices that jeopardize the right to defend human rights.”

    In a public letter sent today to the Attorney General, María Consuelo Porras, Amnesty International expressed its concern over the irregularities and negligence in the criminal proceedings against Bernardo Caal – such as the lack of objective evidence to support the charges – that coincide with the patterns of criminalization previously documented by the organization in cases against those defending the land or environment. 

    In 2016 and 2019, the High-Risk Crimes Court A issued two acquittal judgements in other cases of criminalization of human rights defenders in which it indicated the misuse of the criminal justice system against human rights defenders and ancestral authorities in the country, without the existence of evidence or crimes.

    Amnesty International defines prisoners of conscience as those who have not used or advocated violence but are imprisoned or subjected to other restrictions on their freedom due to their religious, political or other beliefs, their ethnic origin, sex, colour, language, national or social origin, sexual orientation or gender identity, or other status. Bernardo Caal is the first prisoner of conscience to be declared by the organization in Guatemala since the signing of the Peace Agreements that brought an end to the internal armed conflict in the country in 1996. 

    Bernardo Caal's lawyers have been appealing his sentence since 30 November 2018. However, the trial has been unduly delayed and the hearing has still not been held due to the fact that on four occasions the designated judges did not appear or submitted an excuse not to hear the case. The next hearing is scheduled for 28 July 2020.

    For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Lucy Scholey, Media Relations, Amnesty International Canada (English branch), 613-853-2142, lscholey@amnesty.ca

    Read more:

    Amnesty International calls for the release of all prisoners of conscience worldwide (News, 4 May 2020) https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/05/amnesty-international-calls-for-the-release-of-all-prisoners-of-conscience-worldwide/

    We are defending the land with our blood: Defenders of the land, territory and environment in Honduras and Guatemala (Research, 1 September 2016) https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/amr01/4562/2016/en/