Posted 2013/10/2

Guatemala: Front Line Defenders Issues Public Statement Calling on the Government of Guatemala to cease persecuting civil society organisations, NGOs and human rights defenders

Defamatory article.Defamatory article labeling HRDs as the faces of infamy.

Throughout 2013, the Government of Guatemala has escalated a campaign to criminalise, discredit and control civil society organisations (CSOs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and human rights defenders (HRDs).

The safe space in which human rights defenders work is consistently shrinking, while their personal credibility is attacked through defamation campaigns. The State of Guatemala, including through the President's Office and the Ministry of the Interior, have also been responsible for defaming human rights defenders, linking them to terrorist activities or threatening them with criminal proceedings should they continue to criticise government policies. The current crackdown has not been restricted to Guatemalan CSOs; international organisations operating in the country have also been targeted in media campaigns accusing them of financing or fomenting discontent and conflict.

Up until September 2013 the Unidad de Protección de Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos Guatemala – UDEFEGUA (Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit in Guatemala) has recorded 568 attacks against human rights defenders compared to 305 in the whole of 2012. Alongside the threats and physical attacks, linked both to the Rios Montt trial and ongoing land/environmental issues, there has been a high profile, well resourced defamation campaign labeling human rights defenders as traitors and eco-terrorists. 164 defamation cases have been recorded between January and September 2013.

In the same period 18 human rights defenders have been killed, while 37 others survived assassination attempts. The killing of Carlos Alberto Orellana Chávez in August 2013 brought to four the number of journalists killed so far this year. This led the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue to criticise the administration of President Otto Pérez Molina for failing to stem crime in the country, siding with private interests, persecuting social leaders and not protecting journalists from judicial harassment, lawsuits, threats, physical aggressions and killings. He described the violence as a “step backwards for democracy and the country's peace process”.

Human rights defenders continue to live in a climate of fear where the risk of arrest is used to deter people from continuing their human rights work, death threats (155 written threats and 6 telephone threats so far in 2013), break-ins at offices, intimidation, kidnappings and surveillance are used to put human rights defenders under such pressure that they often feel that they have to choose between the security of their families and their commitment to the work. The cost of being a human rights defender in a violent society such as Guatemala remains extremely high.

Defamation campaigns against civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations and human rights defenders are used not only to intimidate and harass groups and individuals but also to undermine their credibility and their legitimate human rights activities, and erode their political and financial support.

• On 2 May 2013, President Otto Pérez Molina declared a State of Siege in four municipalities around the El Escobal mining project: San Rafael Las Flores and Casillas (Dept. of Santa Rosa), and Jalapa and Mataquescuintla (Dept. of Jalapa). On 27 April, a group of local residents opposing the mining activities left a resistance camp close to the mine. When they passed the front gate, security guards opened fire on them from the other side, wounding more than 10 people. In subsequent violence a policeman was killed and a number of police vehicles were burned out. Since then 12 members of the Comité en Defensa de la Vida de San Rafael las Flores (Committee in Defense of Life in San Rafael las Flores) have been targeted and had their homes raided by police and military forces, 5 community leaders and members have been arrested and charged and at least 18 more have pending arrest warrants against them. In a televised press conference the President said the State of Siege was necessary because the protesters, or organised criminal groups like the Zeta drug cartel, were armed with heavy weapons and explosives. The Minister of the Interior described the anti-mining protest groups as 'Merchants of Conflict' and vowed to reveal 'the criminal structures behind .. recent activity' through a series of raids. The State of Siege grants the Government the right to seize weapons, arrest or detain citizens for unlimited periods of time without appearing before a judge and with no guarantee of an attorney to represent them during interrogation. All public gatherings or protests in the area around the San Rafael mine are banned. These measures are also used as a means to defaming, and criminalising human rights defenders and organisations, and preventing them from carrying out their non-violent actions opposing mining activities.

• On 10 July 2013, several shots were fired outside the home of Ms Telma Yolanda Oquelí Veliz del Cid, leader of the Frente Norte del Área Metropolitana – FRENAM (Northern Front of the Metropolitan Area), a movement of community members who defend the land from the expansion of mining activities in San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc, in the Department of Guatemala. The incident happened shortly after the killing of human rights defender Mr Santos Fidel Ajau Suret, as he returned from participating in the peaceful sit-in protests against a mining project at La Puya village. Yolanda Oquelí was the target of an attempted killing on 13 June 2012 following her prominent role in the peaceful opposition movement to another local mining project at El Tambor village.

FCT Article defaming CALASFCT Article defaming CALAS

• On 30 June and 1 July 2013, a four-page full-colour article by the Fundación Contra el Terrorismo (Foundation Against Terrorism - FCT) was published in four national newspapers, in which human rights organization Centro de Acción Legal, Ambiental y Social de Guatemala – CALAS (Legal, Environmental and Social Action Centre of Guatemala) and two of its leaders, Dr Yuri Giovanni Melini Salguero and Mr Pedro Rafael Maldonado Flores were defamed and denigrated. CALAS works to promote community participation and respect for the collective rights of indigenous peoples in relation to environmental concerns. CALAS has actively protested against the planned construction of a liquid petroleum plant in the protected area of Refugio de Vida Silvestre "Punta de Manabique”, in Izabal with the result that the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources and the National Council for Protected Areas denied authorisation for the construction of this plant.

• The Foundation Against Terrorism, whose participants include former military officials and military supporters, alleged that CALAS uses funds it receives from powerful international entities such as OXFAM and the Norwegian government to foment conflict in areas where mining and the cultivation of mono-cultures takes place. Dr Yuri Giovanni Melini Salguero and Pedro Rafael Maldonado Flores, in particular, are accused of orchestrating campaigns of disinformation against mining companies in order to promote conflict and violent protest between indigenous people and the companies in these areas. They are accused of endangering the economic progress of Guatemala and depriving the country of any opportunity for development. On 4 September 2008 Yuri Melini survived an assassination attempt during which he shot in his abdomen, his right knee and also in his left femur.

• On 30 May 2013 Mr Rubén Herrera of the of Asamblea de Pueblos de Huehuetenango Por La Defensa del Territorio - ADH (Huehuetenango Villages Assembly for Land Defence) was released from jail, following his arrest on 15 March 2013. In one of two cases Rubén Herrera had been accused of false imprisonment, threats and incitement to criminality, and the judge directed that the Public Ministry collect more evidence, setting a new trial date for six months' time. In the other case the judge found that no evidence existed to show that the human rights defender had been involved, either directly or indirectly, in the events that he had been accused of directing. In this case there were nine charges against Rubén Herrera, the most serious amongst them being terrorism, kidnapping and threatening the security of the nation. Rubén Herrera was released from detention pending his appearance at the next hearing in November. The charges against him are linked to his alleged involvement in actions against the hydro project Santacruz, managed by energy company Hidralia Energy, to whom the Government issued a hydroelectric dam license in 2010.

These are just a few examples of a series of threats and intimidatory acts directed against human rights defenders who protect witnesses in the aforementioned historic genocide trial, or are otherwise involved in working for truth, memory and justice, as well as other consistently targeted groups such as land and environmental issues. They take place in a climate of violence and intimidation directed towards human rights defenders, including the killing and criminalisation of indigenous peoples' rights defenders, and of impunity for the perpetrators of abuses against human rights in Guatemala.

Front Line Defenders calls on the authorities in Guatemala to:

1. Conduct an immediate and impartial investigation into the increased numbers of killings and attacks against civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations and human rights defenders with a view to publishing the results and bringing those responsible to justice in accordance with international standards;

2. Establish an independent panel to carry out an inquiry into links between defamation campaigns and the increase in attacks and killings of human rights defenders;

3. Publicly recognise the positive and legitimate role played by human rights defenders in Guatemala and take measures to ensure that government officials or other public figures refrain from making statements or declarations stigmatising the legitimate work of human rights defenders.

4. Cease targeting all human rights defenders in Guatemala and guarantee in all circumstances that they are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals.