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Extreme violence continued to characterise attacks against those who speak out for human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2014. While death threats and physical attacks were the most frequently reported violations, intimidation, harassment, surveillance, defamation, stigmatisation and killings were commonplace, and there continued to be widespread impunity for these attacks. Front Line Defenders recorded an increase in the use of arbitrary detention and surveillance in the region. HRDs were targeted by both state and non-state actors: state institutions including security forces, paramilitaries, criminal groups, private security companies or hired assassins from national and transnational companies.
Environmental and land rights defenders challenging the economic and political interests of government and private companies were particularly at risk in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and Peru. They were threatened, put under surveillance, attacked and killed. The use of fabricated charges was particularly noticeable. In September, in Guatemala, two members of the Coordinadora Central Campesina Ch’orti’´ “Nuevo Día” were arrested for allegedly ‘inciting public disorder’ following peaceful protests demanding the repeal of two decrees, which were seen by indigenous communities as criminalising their opposition to mining activities and violating the right to prior consultation. The HRDs were released three days later when a judge ruled that the charges were unfounded.
Women HRDs continued to face multiple layers of discrimination and targeting. In October, Bárbara Díaz Surín, a community leader opposing the construction of a cement plant in Guatemala, was detained by a group of 40 police officers, only one of whom was female. The following day, during a preliminary hearing – during which she was not provided with interpretation into her indigenous language – the judge remanded her in custody for the duration of the investigation, despite the defence’s plea for her to be kept under house arrest so she could look after her seven children. The next hearing will not take place until early 2015.
Despite progress in some countries, homophobia and inequality based on sexual orientation and gender identity remained widespread and affected LGBTI rights defenders. In Brazil, in June, the President of the Conselho Municipal LGBT de Teresina received a text message from a group calling itself Irmandade Homofobica (Homophobic Brotherhood) threatening to eliminate members of the organisation. In March, a member of the LGBTI organisation Grupo Matizes was threatened after she made a statement to the press linking Irmandade Homofobica to a homophobic attack the previous year. Front Line Defenders reported attacks on LGBTI rights defenders in Brazil, Ecuador and Honduras.
Death threats were the single most common violation recorded by Front Line Defenders against HRDs in the region. Reports were documented in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. In January, the Instituto de Terapia e Investigación sobre las Secuelas de la Tortura y la Violencia Estatal (ITEI) in Bolivia publicly denounced frequent instances of intimidation and death threats against its director and staff in relation to its anti-torture work. In Colombia, Yomaira Mendoza and Enrique Cabezas, who work on land rights with Curbaradó communities in the Uraba region, received multiple death threats. By the time they were forced to leave the country, they had counted more than 80 threats, including assassination attempts against them and their family members. In Mexico, indigenous peoples’ rights defender Silvia Perez Yescas had just returned to her hometown after a long absence, when she was informed that there was a bounty of 100.000 pesos on her head.
Detention and judicial harassment were reported in Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. Civil and criminal lawsuits or other court proceedings were initiated against HRDs by private national or international companies, their staff in their individual capacities, or by government institutions. In September, Mario Luna Romero and Fernando Jiménez Gutiérrez, both spokespersons for the Yaqui Tribe in Sonora state, Mexico, were arrested and faced fabricated charges of ‘illegal deprivation of liberty’ and ‘theft of a motor vehicle’. The Yaqui tribe has been working to prevent the diversion of water from the Yaqui river, over which the tribe has 50% ownership, to the Independence Aqueduct.
The World Cup in Brazil was accompanied by police repression of social protests. In July, human rights lawyer Eloisa Samy was arrested in Rio de Janeiro during raids carried out by the civil police force, during which 19 protesters were arrested and police invaded the homes of HRDs and protesters.
Killings were reported in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico and Peru. As of 1 November, 47 HRDs were killed in Colombia, 16 in Guatemala and Honduras, 12 in Brazil, five in Mexico and four in Peru. The majority of these cases related to HRDs working to defend their rights to land and territories, and indicate a pattern of systematic targeting of campesino, Afro-descendant and indigenous peoples’ rights defenders.
Physical attacks, including in detention, continued to be reported. In January in Ciego de Ávila, Cuba, seven HRDs were tied up and dragged along by a patrol car belonging to the National Revolutionary Police while police agents beat them. During their transfer to the police station, one of them, Juan Carlos González Leiva, had his hands tied behind his back and received repeated blows to the face and head. Upon exiting the car, he was strangled until he lost consciousness. Front Line Defenders reported on physical attacks in Brazil, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela.
Campaigns of stigmatisation targeted HRDs in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela, in the form of statements by high level public officials or media smear campaigns. In Venezuela, the Minister for Justice and the Interior accused Humberto Prado Sifontes, who works on prison conditions, of being part of a conspiracy to ‘destabilise the penitentiary system’. In El Salvador, women HRDs campaigning for the pardon of 17 women imprisoned on charges relating to abortion, faced a violent smear campaign in conservative media: a leading media group published an article quoting false information relating to the funding of the Campaña Libertad para las 17. Over the following days, other media sources published articles and editorials, leading to a number of the HRDs receiving threats.
Brazil celebrated the 10th anniversary of its National Protection Programme for Human Rights Defenders (PPDDH) in November. During the year, it provided protection to 342 HRDs at federal and state levels. In spite of these significant numbers, serious flaws remain with regard to the resources at the disposal of the Programme, its reach and the lack of a legislative framework. In Colombia, the National Protection Unit (UNP) has so far failed in its mission to provide effective protection; HRDs have found their measures to be ineffective, while the UNP is not designed to address the root causes of the insecurity and a serious corruption scandal further eroded its credibility. In Mexico, while some progress was made in implementing the National Protection Programme, long delays in assessing cases, inadequately trained staff, and limited financial resources seriously affected its operations.
Mexico: Break-in and seizure of sensitive information at the home of human rights defender Miguel Ángel Zenón
Guatemala: Shots fired outside offices of human rights organisation Centro de Acción Legal Ambiental y Social de Guatemala (CALAS)
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- Centro de Accion Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH) (Guatemala)
- Centro de Derechos Humanos (Mexico)
- Corporación de Promoción y Defensa de los Derechos del Pueblo (CODEPU) (Chile)
- Conselho Indigenista Missionario (CIMI) (Brazil)
- Fundacion de Avuda Social de las Iglesias Cristianas (FASIC) (Chile)
- Fundacion Regional de Asesoria en Derechos Humanos (INREDH) (Ecuador)
- Gabinete de Assessoria Jurídica ás Organizações Populares (GAJOP) (Brazil)
- Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais RJ (Brazil)
- Instituto Latinoamericano de Servicios Legales Alternativos (ILSA) (Colombia)
- Justica Global (Brazil)
- Liga Mexicana por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (LIMEDDH)
- Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) (Brazil)
- Movimento Nacional de Direitos Humanos (MNDH) (Brazil)
- Coalition Nationale pour les Droits des Haitiens
- Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) (Argentina)
- American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (USA)
- Coalition of Immokalee Workers (USA)
- Jackson Advocate (USA)
- Kensington Welfare Rights Union (USA)
- Lynne Stewart (USA)