Honduras: Exercising the right to protest has a high cost for those who dare take to the streets
The government of President Juan Orlando Hernández has embarked on a policy of repression against those who protest in the streets to demand his resignation and accountability for the actions of authorities. The use of military forces to control demonstrations across the country has had a deeply concerning toll on human rights, said Amnesty International upon presenting the findings of a field investigation.
“President Juan Orlando Hernández’s (JOH) message is very clear: shouting ‘JOH out’ and demanding change can be very costly. At least six people have died in the context of protests and dozens have been injured, many of them by firearms fired by security forces since the beginning of this wave of demonstrations,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.
In a desperate attempt to silence the voices demanding his resignation, President Hernández has used the armed forces to control the protests. According to information gathered by Amnesty International, during this period the security forces have indiscriminately used less-than-lethal weapons, such as tear gas or rubber bullets, causing injury to dozens of people. In total, six people have been killed in this context since April, four of them by firearms at the hands of the security forces.
The repressive policies of the Hernandez government in response to protests have previously been condemned. On 13 June 2018, Amnesty International published the report Protest Prohibited: Use of Force and Arbitrary Detentions to Suppress Dissident in Honduras, which documents how the authorities not only used excessive force to repress peaceful protesters immediately after the controversial elections of 26 November 2017, but also arbitrarily detained and held protesters in deplorable conditions for months, denying them their right to due process and an adequate defence.
Since then, the wave of anti-government demonstrations has been a constant in the country. According to the non-governmental organization Committee for Free Expression (C-Libre), from 4 March to 25 June this year, there were at least 346 protests across the country. The current generalized discontent of the population was provoked by the approval, on 25 April, of laws that transformed the national health education systems, which in the opinion of teachers’ leaders and the Medical College of Honduras, will lead to the privatization of these sectors and the massive dismissal of employees. Although these laws were repealed, protesters have continued to demand the president’s resignation.
Amnesty International’s Americas crisis team conducted a rapid response mission during the first week of July, following the upsurge in violence during demonstrations of the last few weeks, which left a toll of six people dead and almost 80 injured. The organization documented a total of eight cases, two of which involved people killed by the army and military police, and six that involved people who were injured, four of them by firearms. In addition, the organization analyzed more than 60 pieces of audio-visual and photographic material to identify the weapons and ammunition used, among other things.
DEATHS DUE TO THE USE OF LETHAL FORCE
On 20 June, Eblin Noel Corea Maradiaga, a 17-year-old student, was killed by the army in the town of Yarumela, La Paz, where hours before a road blockade had taken place as a form of protest, before finally giving way. Despite this, an army convoy arrived moments later, fired on civilians and chased several people, including Eblin and his father. Although they were unarmed and attempting to take refuge in an alley, witnesses report that an army officer took position, aimed and shot the teenager, who fell into his father’s arms after being hit in the chest.
In another case, on 19 June, Erik Peralta was trying to cross an avenue blocked by a protest in Tegucigalpa’s Pedregal neighbourood, after returning from work, when soldiers arrived and, without a word, began to shoot. According to the forensic report, a bullet pierced his chest and killed him almost immediately. Erik was 37 years old and had four children.
INJURIES FROM USE OF LETHAL AND LESS-THAN-LETHAL FORCE
Another case that Amnesty International documented of the excessive use of force was the incursion into the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) on 24 June, when Military Police officers entered the compound and shot at dozens of people demonstrating in the entrance. In a press release, the government said this was justified by the need to rescue an officer who was abducted by students, as well as by the use of Molotov cocktails and other devices launched against security forces, and the need to “repel the attack”.
While Amnesty International was able to document the use of stones and, in some cases, handmade mortars by demonstrators, the organization believes that the use of lethal force was excessive and unnecessary. The fact that some groups or individuals use violence in a demonstration does not make the whole protest violent per se.
That said, the organization could find no evidence of the alleged abduction of the military official, and the university rector himself confirmed to Amnesty International that no evidence of this had been presented, nor that there had been any negotiation process prior to the use of force. Likewise, the authorities violated the principle of exceptionality of lethal force, which can only be used in cases of imminent risk against the lives of agents or third parties.
As a result, at least five people were shot, including a 25-year-old student, whose identity has been omitted for security reasons, who was shot in the arm, and Elder Nahúm Peralta, another 21-year-old student, who was hit by a bullet impact that entered and exited his right buttock. In an interview with Amnesty International, Elder said that while running to protect himself, he was struck by a bullet and fell to the ground. He was helped by university security personnel and students, who took him to the Hospital Escuela, where he received medical attention.
On 30 May, a young teacher participating in local protests was shot by National Police officers after they fired into the crowd. The shot to his back caused the loss of a kidney and damaged his large intestine, transverse colon and lung.
Violent police repression also affected people who were not participating in the protests. In Tegucigalpa, National Police officers assaulted two members of a family who had reprimanded them for throwing tear gas near their home. Feeling suffocated, the family left their home to demand an end to the use of tear gas and were beaten with clubs, punches and kicks. As a result, one of them required immediate medical attention, included stitching of head wounds.
Impunity, which has been continuously denounced in the country in recent years, remains endemic in Honduras with regard to human rights violations, and this encourages further violations.
“The Honduran justice system has demonstrated once again that human rights violations in the context of protests continue without proper investigation, nor are people suspected of criminal responsibility brought to justice. The facts of these last few weeks demonstrate how impunity is a constant that fuels the repetition of serious human rights violations,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.
In two of the eight cases that Amnesty International documented, families did not file a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office for fear of reprisals. In the remaining six cases, although they filed complaints, they did not trust in the impartiality or efficiency of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and in at least three cases they claimed that the steps necessary to ensure a thorough investigation had not been taken in time.
For example, Eblin Noel Corea Maradiaga’s family did not allow the autopsy to be performed for fear that the authorities would “misplace” the bullet that was lodged in his body. Considering it to be a key piece of evidence for the solving of the crime, they requested an exhumation with the cooperation of trusted forensic personnel provided by the family. However, the Public Prosecutor's Office denied their participation and they are still waiting for this to happen. Such was the family’s distrust of the authorities that they installed a light bulb to be able to watch over his body 24 hours a day, for fear that someone might tamper with the corpse and steal the bullet.
In another incident, on 29 April, a public official, dressed in civilian clothes and operating in conjunction with the national police, fired on a person whose identity has been omitted for security reasons. Despite it being clear from testimonies and images of the event that the official was carrying a semi-automatic weapon consistent with the caliber of bullet that the victim has lodged in their chest, no one has been prosecuted so far. Although a complaint was filed immediately after the incident, as well as requests made to the prosecutor’s office soliciting information on the proceedings, the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), the organization that accompanies victims, has not received a response.
In this context, Amnesty International considers it essential to advance the investigations and guarantee the correct processing of all available evidence for the proper identification of possible perpetrators and their subsequent prosecution.
Amnesty International also met with government officials to discuss the current context of the crisis and the evidence gathered by the organization that exposes serious human rights violations. The officials stated that they have adhered to the law and that if there were cases to the contrary, this would be due to individual actions by inexperienced personnel, not a policy of repression. In addition, they justified military deployment for security purposes in accordance with the Constitution. The authorities pledged to provide Amnesty International with information regarding the investigation into the attack on the UNAH.
Meetings were also held with national human rights organizations, which expressed concern about the state’s repressive strategy aimed at silencing critical voices demanding structural changes in public policies. The organization reiterates its condemnation of the stigmatization, harassment and aggression against human rights defenders and calls for their protection.
Amnesty International has already publicly condemned the National Security Council’s decision of 20 June 2019 to deploy the armed forces, police and intelligence agents in response to protests, as this could lead to an increase in the excessive use of force against demonstrators. The organization reiterates that the state must guarantee an orderly withdrawal of the armed forces from public security tasks and implement a process of strengthening the capacities of the National Police.
“The president must urgently demonstrate that he is willing to use all the means at his disposal to stop lethal repression, otherwise there will be compelling reasons to consider his responsibility for each of the deaths and attacks against people exercising their legitimate right to protest,” concluded Erika Guevara-Rosas.
For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Lucy Scholey, Amnesty International Canada (English), + 613-744-7667 ext. 236, firstname.lastname@example.org
Honduras: Amnesty International warns President Hernández about the deployment of the Armed Forces during protests (News, 21 June 2019)